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'Go With Me': A Wry Journey Deep Into Vermont

A woman at a bookstore in Brattleboro, Vt., put Castle Freeman Jr.'s novel Go With Me in my hand and I took it to be nice. "Yeah I'll probably read five pages," I thought. But once I started, I could not put it down.

The novel begins with a young woman, Lillian, sleeping in her car outside a sheriff's office in a small town in Southern Vermont. Her car's side window has been shattered, and her fist is curled around a paring knife.

Turns out, a local menace not only destroyed Lillian's window; he also slit her cat's throat. He's after Lillian; she needs help; but since she didn't actually see the thug kill her cat, the sheriff says, "I can't arrest him for what he wants to do. That ain't the way it works."

Lillian seeks help in an ancient, dilapidated chair factory, where an old man in a wheelchair spends each day drinking beers with his gnarled cronies. Against her better judgment, she comes away with two men who will help her take on the villain: first a sly, aged fox who lives alone in a house with untold handcrafted pinwheels on the lawn (he'll be the brains of their operation), and second, Nate the Great, a quiet, lanky hulk who does menial chores around the factory. (The popular perception of Nate: "Smarter than a horse. Not smarter than a tractor.")

Go With Me employs the simplest of setups: Ragtag underdogs take on unstoppable evil. On the way, readers get an expertly guided tour of a disappearing Vermont, one that's still occasionally visible behind the touristy sheen of roadside farms and ski lodges. In one running joke, various local landmarks and former stores have now become candle shops.

Writer Freeman not only unpacks the social dynamics of Vermont's picturesque towns; he also takes readers into all the places they don't stop during a fall weekend road trip — that dilapidated bar by the side of the road, the wildcat logging camp, the abandoned school bus that serves as its bunkhouses, the woods of dark myths and bad men and the unspeakable brutalities that take place in the blackest night.

One of the real charming things about this book is how funny it is, full of dark, sly humor. The running commentary provided by the cronies in the chair factory is, by turns, deadpan and infuriating and hilarious. The cronies act as a Greek chorus, helping to fill in histories of the town.

Finally the villain's evil is all but overwhelming, and confrontation is unavoidable. "We can't turn this thing around," says Les, the old man guiding Lillian. "If we do this, we got to finish it. We got to go through. You see that."

Freeman's sentences have been honed to rhythmic perfection in a way reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy — a high compliment, but one that's well-deserved. What McCarthy has done for the dusty plains of the Southwest, Freeman, a resident of Newfane, Vt., does here for the Green Mountains. At a taut, 160 pages, Go With Me is at once wry, primal, epic and impossible to put down.

I'm telling you the same thing I told the writer Richard Price: You must read this.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

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Charles Bock
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