Ashland & Vine, by John Burnside

Carbondale, Alabama. Jean Culver watches her father get shot, on the intersection of Ashland and Vine. So begins Culver’s tale, told to Kate Lambert, and so begins Ashland & Vine. It’s a tale that spans much of the landscape of 20th century America, taking in World War II and Korea, the Cold War and Vietnam, anti-war protesters and the Weather Underground. She tells her story to the grieving Lambert on the condition that she sobers up — if Lambert can go a day without drinking, Culver will tell her a story; another day, another story — like a Scheherazade for the self-help generation.

Lambert isn’t listening to Culver out of her own curiosity — rather, she begins talking to her in an attempt to collect testimony for an oral history project cooked up by her film studies professor boyfriend Laurits, who claims to be Estonian, and uses this to harangue his friends on “their” American history. He isn’t Estonian, but he is a cliché.

Ashland & Vine, by John Burnside
Ashland & Vine, by John Burnside

Lambert teeters on the brink of alcoholism, driven to the precipice by grief, but even in this fraught state, she never forgets her impeccable array of literary references, never forgets to ensure that everything is imbued with a Lit-101 significance. The sound of chopping wood brings forth a Proustian remembrance of woods past:

“As a child I convinced myself that the woods around our house went back to a time before the settlers arrived; ancient Iroquois lands, full of blue jays and cardinals and families of tender, sweet-lipped deer. They were my own private, haunted realm when I was a child, my small promise of heaven and, at the same time, proof of the history my father claimed as his own, for was he not at least part Native American and therefore entitled to look at those woods in a different way from his neighbours? Now, like the house, those woods are gone…”.

And so on.

Similarly, she sobers up to break out of the “tedium of the self. Not myself, but the self as random burden, imposed on a whim by some malevolent visitor from an old fairy tale.” Culver masquerades as a Scheherazade-figure, but Lambert fancies herself an existential philosopher.

For someone so insistent on telling her story, very little happens to Jean Culver herself. She watches as her father is shot in broad daylight, and seems not really to be affected by it. Her brother fights in the D-Day Landings and in France, before joining the CIA at the height of the Cold War. Her genius sister is swept up in the 1960s anti-Vietnam protests and in the Students for a Democratic Society movement, before disappearing off the map as a member of the Weather Underground. Culver herself sits in middle America, chopping wood and drinking endless cups of herbal tea. She narrates her story in an unaffected, encyclopaedic prose that conveys powerful emotion and grand historical narratives, talking about the Weather Underground with the same flat affect as the Shipping Forecast.

John Burnside is one of Ireland’s most accomplished authors and critics, and the premise for Ashland & Vine is a fascinating one. However, his attempt to read post-War American history is an attempt that falls flat, reading more as exposition than exploration, a lecture rather than a fairy tale.

John Burnside, Ashland & Vine, Jonathan Cape (London: 2016)

Jonathan Cape provided me with a review copy of Ashland & Vine.

Leave a Reply