William Least Heat-Moon is renowned for his travel writing. Blue Highways, his first book, is a marvel of fine prose, careful observation, poignancy, and great storytelling. It is deservedly considered a classic. Books that followed were no less fascinating, and each took an unexpected route to give us a look at life on various roads, some by water, others by history, always with an eye on the landscape.
Now he has turned his skills at close observation to fiction. Celestial Mechanics is Heat-Moon’s first novel and it is as unexpected as any of his past works.
Silas Fortunato, thirty-three, has come home to inhabit a hundred acres inherited from a deceased aunt, and by happenstance encounters Dolores Heppernan, who goes by Dominique, arguing with an inn-keeper over a misplaced reservation. Silas gives her his room and so begins his pursuit to bind the fey Dominique to him. He is smitten. In an idiosyncratic courtship, he convinces Dominique to marry him and move to the Hundred, with its aging ramble of a house and the unimproved woodland around it.
Dominique is a real estate agent–this after having been many things. We’re never entirely sure what Silas was, but it had to do with academia, to be sure, for his is a deeply-read man with a fascination for Marcus Aurelius and aspirations to write a play. No astrologer, he nevertheless puts great stock in the stars and even builds a platform for stargazing at the top of the house.
Rarely have two people been so mismatched. Heat-Moon understands something about obsessive love because he never explains what it is about Dominique that draws Silas. He simply chooses her, devotes himself to her, and works mightily to make her happy to be his wife. For her part, almost from the start Dominique questions her own motives for agreeing to the marriage and starts looking, sporadically but with growing urgency, for a way out. To be fair, she does try to pull Silas into her view of life—tries to convince him to sell the Hundred for development, get a house in town, travel. But Silas—the name means “Wood Dweller”—while willing to make great concessions to her, will not part with the property for any reason so venal as money. He sees the land as a source of regeneration and hopes Dominique will eventually come to find peace there.
But Dominique is not interested in peace, not that kind, anyway. She is in headlong pursuit of security of the kind that requires her to depend on no one else. She wants wealth, travel, independence. She wants no one to trap her, confine her, or limit her in any way. While Silas never wanted to do that, the very stability he offers to her is an illusion, a trap, a set of walls.
The truth is, Dominique is on the run. From herself more than anything else. She sees people as wanting nothing more than to define her and restrain her and her entire life has been a series of escapes. She is smart, clever, but just enough to know how to manipulate the systems around her to keep from being caught by them.
Silas wants nothing more than to find and understand his place within the world Dominique seems determined not to yield to. Their relationship becomes a congeries of misunderstandings and evasions.
Into this one more person enters, Dominiques sister, Celeste, who is in the process of taking orders in a convent. She hears of her sister’s marriage and the odd man to whom she has committed herself and now seems ill at ease with, and comes to visit.
It is clear to us that Silas married the wrong one. Silas, though, has no such thoughts, and though we suspect Celeste does, she is conflicted about what to do. She wants to stability and peace of the convent but she chafes under the restrictions on imagination within.
In certain ways, the novel proceeds along well-trod paths. But Heat-Moon knows that the well-trod can surprise, that roads, pathways, trails, and highways can deceive if one does not look close enough at what there is along the way. Here he gives us the unexpected enfolded in what seems familiar. People, he shows us, are the least predictable of maps, and even when they seem to be going an obvious direction, the journey can still surprise.
There is even a ghost of sorts in the book.
But this is, as per Heat-Moon’s past offerings, a very layered story, and nothing is quite as neatly comprehensible as it may seem. Dominique…well, Heat-Moon understands the power of names, as well he should. Dominique, seeking to be self-contained, is her own passion. Dolores means “sorrow” and is a not very sly reference to the Virgin Mary. Dominique means “lord.” She seeks to be her own chosen apotheosis. But she is stuck entirely in the flight to Egypt. Celeste, not surprisingly, means “heavenly.” But Celeste is looking for a very tangible, terrestrial salvation. Heat-Moon plays the full range of contradictions and potentials implied by all these meaning-laden labels and pulls the expected story inside-out.
What we end up with, then, is a road trip of souls. William Least-Heat Moon has taken a story of people making choices incompatible with their own desires and natures and given us a travelogue of the spirit. The trajectories of these three people, each one trying to find their place in a cosmos crowded with distraction and uncertainty, reveal the geography of the self and the gravity of choice. In the end we’re offered a map of roads oft-traveled and too little remarked on the journey to hope.