December 6, 2010

Book review: "Harvest Season," by Chris Taylor

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Harvest Season, by Chris Taylor

Harvest Season
By Chris Taylor
Earnshaw Books

Although the writing style itself is often not up to the level of most mainstream publishing, there's a lot to passionately love about basement-press books anyway; for example, they often deliver one of the most concrete, evocative examples in all of literature of submerging a reader into a very specific setting, often because of the story being related to an event from the author's real life, which is the whole reason that person is sitting and writing a novel in the first place, when they never have before. And you can't find much better an example of this than with Chris Taylor's literary debut, Harvest Season from the tiny Earnshaw Books; set in southwest China and loosely inspired by his time there in the '90s as a travel writer, what it lacks in story maturity it makes up for in mood and charm, a very Graham-Greenian sort of tale that is as much about lingering in that specific time and place as it is about the plot itself. It may have its problems (and more on that in a bit), but I found myself really sucked into its milieu in a passionate manner anyway, one of those rare times in my life as a heavy reader that I just let myself sit back and enjoy the view, and to leisurely make my way through this landscape of dense imagery and vivid description.

And in fact, probably the first important thing to know about this book is that who Taylor used to write for was the hippie-friendly "Lonely Planet" franchise; and so that led him to setting his novel in a Lonely-Planet-type destination, a rural village called Shuangshan which I suspect is a made-up name (at least, there's no entry for it at either Wikipedia or Google Maps), which much like the American cities of Taos and Woodstock is a curious mix of alternative lifestyles and wary rural locals, a supposed unknown paradise where marijuana literally grows wild by the ton on the surrounding hillsides (hence the title of this book), but that is situated uncomfortably close to such Western tourist destinations as Thailand, and in fact has started seeing more and more clueless white backpacking douchebags with every passing year. And just right there is a good example of what I'm talking about today; because before I read this, I had no idea that the supposedly draconian communist state of China even had hippie villages full of drug-taking lefties, much less that this region of the country is now seeing thousands of middle-class white tourists from the West every year.

In fact, this is one of the major themes of the entire book, of what constitutes a "good" middle-class white tourist from a "bad" one, essentially a global version of the old gentrification debate that's been taking place in Western cities since the 1970s; of whether the "ruining" of a former idyllic spot full of non-whites (be it ethnic neighborhood or entire Asian region) is mostly the fault of all the crass, boorish consumerists who eventually move in, or the respectful yet still bourgeois white creatives (artists, backpackers, Lonely Planet writers) who bring that place to the attention of the boors to begin with. It's this issue that mostly fuels what little plot there is in this book, as a group of cynical Western and Chinese slacker dropouts who have been quietly enjoying Shuangshan for several years watch with dismay as a sharp American club promoter moves into town, sets up what is basically a tin-walled "hippie resort," then uses his urban contacts to start convincing partying white spring-breakers in Thailand and Bali that the scene in southeast Asia is so totally over, and that rural China is the real place to go anymore to truly act like a madman in the middle of the jungle with no repercussions.

And indeed, a big part of this book's charm is in how exacting Taylor gets these characterizations in their details; our promoter Alex, for example, is one of those creepy guys who gets shockingly mean and violent whenever drunk then blows it off largely unremembered when sober, who has a sociopathic lack of regard for other people's wishes, and whose "girlfriend" is essentially an Indonesian sorority girl and who he promptly abandons the moment they arrive, while our hero Matt displays many of even the tiniest traits of the vaguely liberal overeducated expat, from his complete obliviousness over his role in this whole process to his habit of getting drunk off Western liquor served in a Western style within a Westerner-owned bar. And this in turn lets us inhabit the world that Taylor has brought us to in much greater detail as well; because with his characters feeling so lifelike and real, it makes what they do seem lifelike and real as well, and helps us understand what it must feel like to actually be in the situations he describes. And so when our protagonists go hiking off to a sacred Buddhist cave and one-man monastery, so do we feel the sweat of the jungle with them; and when Alex indadvertedly attracts the attention of the freeloading dirt-trash globetrotting scrounge known only as "The Family" (obviously based on the real-life Rainbow Family), so do we too feel the tension in the air; and when growing clashes between this group and the locals arouse the attention of the Chinese police, so do we mourn the coming death of an entire way of life there on the rural outskirts of that country.

Now, like I said, Harvest Season has its problems as well, and it's certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea; for example, Taylor relies too much on dark portents to fuel the first two-thirds of the storyline (yes, I get it, something bad is coming), which makes it anticlimactic when that bad thing finally arrives, plus with there being the usual basement-press problems of dialogue that's often a little awkward, a plot that's often a little too slow, and more. (Plus, although I've never read it myself, there are plenty of complaints online about this novel borrowing a little too liberally from Alex Garland's The Beach.) But also like I said, I in particular am happy to overlook most of that stuff in this case, because Taylor ultimately achieves something impressive here that all literature should and so little actually does, which is to literally transport my brain away from reality while I'm reading and wholly into his made-up world instead. As I've said many times, I consider this the one thing that novels can do that literally no other artistic medium can, transfix us so totally that we don't even notice reality going on around us, something I never fully experience when watching a movie or listening to music; and so I'm always a big fan of a book when it can so effectively do so like Taylor does here, a novel with its flaws but that I'm convinced a huge swath of CCLaP's audience will really enjoy anyway. It's why it's getting a score in the 9s today, albeit just barely squeaking into that range, and I encourage you to pick up a copy whenever you get a chance.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about Harvest Season: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 PM, December 6, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |