The novel “Autumn Light” takes place in the American province, far from the big cities. The quiet life of small towns, far from the senseless fuss and the frenzied rhythm of megacities, is not alien to the “accursed” problems of technocratic civilization, the dark, vile sides of big business and big politics. Heroes of the novel – a seventy-three-year-old farmer James Page and his sister Sally, living in Vermont in 1976 after the country has already celebrated the bicentennial of national independence. This year, it becomes especially clear to old James Page that America is now completely different from what it was before, as it always seemed to him – a country of harsh and honest people who know how to work and stand up for themselves, which have a healthy beginning coming from the earth, from nature. James himself was a veteran of the Second World War, served in the airborne engineering troops in Oceania, and now every year he puts on his cap and on Veterans Day participates in the parade in his village. He feels himself a descendant of the founders of the nation – the Vermont Guys from the Green Mountain. It was they who defended the Vermont land from New York speculators and repulsed the Ticonderoga stronghold from the British redcoats-real people who knew how to fight and believed in their own destiny.
James is a man of old and strict rules of Puritan morality, which forms the basis of the American way of life and gradually, he believes, gives way to immorality, money power, a thirst for a beautiful and easy life. The modern generation in his eyes – “fat pigs – chicken brains, give this pleasure, they only have to please themselves.” People seem to be crazy about “lousy dollars” – they kill each other, sell themselves, go crazy, and meanwhile forestry is wrecking, farmers are getting worse, people are losing their ability to work with their hands, as from time immemorial, and forget what it is like honest and fair work. That’s what America came to in two hundred years, James Page believes, and in his imagination the founding fathers with sunken eyes, in decaying blue uniforms, rusty muskets,
A symbol of a new time that the old farmer does not accept is a television for him, showing endlessly murderers, rapists, policemen, half-naked women and all long-haired “loonies”. This hellish car was brought with him by his sister Sally, when she moved to live in the house of her brother. Sally is as self-willed and stubborn as her brother, but she has a lot of different views, for many years she lived with her husband Horas in the city until he died. She has no children. It can not be said that she approves the present mores, but believes in changes for the better and is ready to reason on all sorts of topics, “like an avid liberal”, than provokes a fierce discontent with her brother, who have their own convictions that are lived out with common prejudices. The young people’s sedentary behavior does not shock her, for she believes, that with their antics they want to draw attention to social injustice. She does not consider television a devilish invention and high treason, like her brother, this is her only connection with the world, with the urban life to which she is accustomed.
Sally spends whole nights sitting in the screen until James finally stands up and shoots the TV from the shotgun – he shoots that world, the life that deceived him and betrayed the ideals of the past. A rebellious old woman, his sister drives him to the second floor, and she locked herself in the bedroom in protest, refusing to do anything around the house. A domestic quarrel with a “political” connotation-both talking about freedom and referring to the Constitution of America-is dragged out. Relatives and friends can not reconcile the old people, all their neighbors learn about their quarrel and begin to give advice on how to proceed. The war flares up: to frighten Sally, James suspends a gun before her door, though uncharged. She also arranges a dangerous trap, reinforcing a box of apples over her door, so that he falls on his brother’s head,... if he decides to enter her.
From nothing to do, Sally begins to read the book “Smugglers from the Cliff of the Dead Souls” that fell into her hands. This is an insurgent with an intellectual lining about the rivalry between two smugglers of smugglers engaged in drug trafficking. “A sick, sick and vicious book like life in today’s America” - so says the advertising abstract, as if expressing the essence of the world that James does not accept and which has nowhere to hide, even if the television is destroyed. Two realities seem to converge – in one, people live by ordinary labors, joys, anxieties, communicate with nature, believe in “natural magic, in the battle of the spirit against the gravity of matter,” carry a skull of a rattlesnake with evil spirit; in another – the insane reality of urbanized America – a fierce competitive struggle is raging, and people are obsessed with the idea of profit, crazy desires, illusions and fear. Thus, two novels and two ways of depicting reflect the two vital ways of modern America.
At the head of one of the gangs, who has been transported marijuana from Mexico to San Francisco, stands Captain Kulak – a cynic and a philosopher, talking about freedom and power. This is a kind of ideologist of the world of gain. Other members of his gang – “mankind in miniature” – represent different types of modern consciousness: Mr. Zero is a technocrat, the failed Edison, imagining that the inventor can remake the whole world. The unreasoning Mr. Angel embodies a healthy physical beginning – he without hesitation rushes into the water to save the attempted suicide of the disappointed intellectual Peter Wagner, who inevitably becomes a member of their crew. Jane symbolizes an emancipated modern woman, free to choose her men to taste. Smugglers meet with suppliers of marijuana in the middle of the ocean on a desert island called “The Cliff of Dead Souls.” It is there that they are overtaken by rivals – the crew of the boat “Militant”.
Cruelty, the clash of characters, intolerance – these are the laws of life in a criminal environment, but it is these traits that manifest themselves in the rural wilderness, disrupting the peaceful course of family life, leading to drama. James was notable for intolerance not only to television, snowmobiles and other attributes of the present, but also to his own children – he hijacked and sued his son Richard, whom he considered “weak” and spat about and without reason. At the end of the novel, he sees, realizing that the TV and snowmobile are not the most terrible enemies of man. Psychological and moral blindness is more terrible. Memories of a son and quarrel with Sally make the old farmer look at himself differently. He always tried to live by his conscience, but did not notice that his rules turned into dead dogmas, behind which James could no longer distinguish living people. He believed in his own right and was deaf to the truth of others. He remembers the late wife and son and understands that with all their weaknesses they were honest, good people, and he lived his life and did not notice the main thing in them, because he “had narrow and petty concepts.”
James visits the hospital of a dying friend, Ed Thomas, who regrets not seeing more early spring, when rivers are opened and the land thaws. This is how the human heart must be thawed for understanding another heart. This is the way of saving man, country, humanity, finally. Here is the moral law that must defeat other laws that determined, alas, the history of America and its defining life today – “militancy is the law of human nature,” as Thomas Jefferson, with some regret, states in his epigraph to the whole novel. In this context, one should also take the words of another witness of the birth of the American state, taken as an epigraph to the first chapter and sounding like a verdict of the whole screaming, shooting, narcotized and standardized American civilization: “I was present in the courtyard of Congress, when the Declaration of Independence was read out. Of decent people, almost nobody was there.
Charles Biddle, 1776 “.