Lengthy debut novel shows flashes of excellence but lack of restraint

David A. James

The Early Tales of Snow and Oakham

​By Philip Chavanne, Xulon, 618 pages, 2013, $28.49

It’s always dicey when a novelist goes long on a debut work. Having a surplus of ideas is a gift. Knowing how to channel them is an acquired skill. A few short stories or a novella can give an author the needed discipline to know how to make the painful but needed cuts to a story that mark the difference between complexity and verbosity.   

James Joyce, remember, worked his way up to “Ulysses,” while Tolkien gave us “The Hobbit” before unleashing “The Lord of the Rings.”  

Texas author Philip Chavanne has opted for the riskier approach with his first book. “The Early Tales of Snow and Oakham,” coming in at 618 pages, is a sprawling novel encompassing mystery, magic and myth, religion, rejuvenation and rebirth, growing up, growing old and dying. It’s wordy and plodding, but with sudden and unexpected explosions of action. It owes much to pulp Westerns, surrealism, utopian fantasies and the bizarrely tortured character-driven tales of John Irving. It’s an exhaustively ambitious work.  

Does it succeed? The answer is an unequivocal yes and no.  

Alaska orphanage

The story opens in 1969, when young Tip Holland, about to be shipped off to Vietnam, commits a crime on the Alaska coast, jumps on a fishing boat and heads for Kamchatka. A couple of pages and 13 years later, he’s back from traveling the world. Along with his sister Sissy and several companions acquired overseas, he opens an orphanage named Tenpenny in an unnamed location in an Alaska that differs significantly from the real thing.  

Next we are introduced to Henry Snow, a young white boy whom Tip retrieves from an orphanage in Africa, followed by Jack Oakham, roughly the same age as Henry, who finds his way to Tenpenny on his own.

Another quick jump takes readers to 1993 when the two boys and Tip, who has adopted them by this point, light out on horseback for what is known to the orphans of Tenpenny as the Wild West End, a place where none of them has gone. What follows are essentially three different stories.

In the first and primary story, Tip, Henry and Jack, along with an aging dog named Putt, head through the wilds to recover what Tip tells the two young men is their birthright. Along the way, they encounter enchanted but nonetheless dangerous bears, a mystical dark-skinned family living deep in the forest, a utopian coastal town and an unruly quartet of men who wind up pursuing them. This section, filled with horsemanship, living off the land and gunplay, could as easily be set in the 19th century as the 20th and seems completely indifferent to the modern age it takes place in.

The second story is Tip’s. Through a series of flashbacks ostensibly written by Henry and Jack, we follow him to Russia, where he is taken in by a kindly giant of a man named Otsov Kolschen. As the book plays out, Tip travels onward through Eastern Europe, Africa, India and Papua, with Kolschen periodically at his side. Slowly he progresses from a self-focused nihilist to a mission worker bent on saving people on both Christian and physical levels.

The third story concerns events transpiring back at Tenpenny, with its odd assortment of characters, including Sissy, who’s a petty tyrant; Padibatikal, an Indian girl with no feet; Greer, a local girl whose entire family was killed in a plane crash; Wonderboy, a short-statured former big-game guide from Africa; and Momma Tom, an elderly widow who dispenses homespun wisdom. How they all arrived at Tenpenny is unveiled in the chapters chronicling Tip’s adventures.

Storylines piled high

If it all seems a bit confusing, it is. Chavanne is juggling so many balls here that he’s bound to drop a few. Mostly this occurs in the chapters set in Tenpenny, where a lot of time is devoted to characters who never truly come alive (this in sharp contrast to Tip, Henry and Jack, who very much do), and where events that aren’t crucial to the main story occur.

The other big problem is that Chavanne doesn’t yet know how to contain himself. He’s shoveled so much into this book that it becomes overwhelming. He’s also at times overly self-conscious as narrator.  

The novel is published by Xulon, which bills itself as a Christian self-publishing house. Thus, along with the expected copy editing problems of a vanity press, Chavanne also wasn’t handled by a stern literary editor who would force the necessary cuts, something that would happen with a major publisher. Shorn of perhaps 200 pages, this could be a remarkable debut rather than a good novel with serious but nonfatal flaws.

Still, Chavanne is doing something unique here. At a time when “Christian fiction” evokes bad images of second-rate works where piety, prayer and politics are applied to popular genres like science fiction, spy thrillers and romance novels, he’s aimed much higher. He clearly wants his work to be approached as serious literature, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. While Christian themes permeate this book, it possesses a universality that will appeal to nonbelievers as well. In its best passages, this is a highly compelling novel.  

Thomas Pynchon, one of the towering figures of American literature, debuted with a long novel, but followed it up with a very short one wherein he sharpened the skills needed for his later masterpieces. Chavanne should consider something similar with his next outing and cut his storytelling to its very essence and nothing more. Then he can go back and start adding layers again. Right now, he’s a good writer. With a bit more focus, he could become an outstanding one.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.