Dwelling on the mystery of time

'Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder" begins the old funeral hymn "Farther Along." The words also hold true for Donald Harington's new novel of the same name. The characters are tempted and tried, and the reader is oft made to wonder -- wonder who is speaking and what just happened to the story line that only a few pages ago was moving along straight forwardly.

But it is oft thus with a Donald Harington novel. Though most of his 14 books are set in the Arkansas Ozarks and on occasion the characters speak in the colorful dialect of those environs, there is usually more than a little magical realism in those mountains. Think Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a Jed Clampett accent.

Harington pulled this off masterfully in his tour-de-force 2004 novel "With." In that book, there are talking dogs, beavers that act as swimming instructors and a steamy encounter between a young woman and a, well, sort of a ghost. Sort of.

In "Farther Along," Harington is up to a lot of the same tricks and for the most part they work for him. This book is the story of the Bluff-dweller, a man who was the chief curator of a museum devoted to the vanished American past who decides to chuck all modern life and live Native-American-style in a cave above a dying Ozark hamlet. He makes his own clothes from deer skin and provides meals for himself and his only companion, a German shepherd, with an atlatl -- a primitive spear throwing device. He learned how to do all this by studying a book on the original Bluff-dwellers (written cleverly enough by a man named M.R. Harrington, only an r separating that Mr. Harrington and the author of our tale).

For six years, he lives uneventfully, drinking himself to sleep each night with spirits supplied by a young moonshiner who lives nearby; the Bluff-dweller is a terrible insomniac who can only get to sleep with the aid of booze.

You may have noticed that I haven't called the Bluff-dweller by name. One of the quirks of this book is that only two characters have names. The others are just the Bluff-dweller, the Moonshiner, the woman, the Forest Ranger, the Forest Ranger's mistress, the grandson, etc. Of course, the central character of the book is a man trying to lose himself, to lose even his name, but as a literary technique the namelessness is sometimes confusing and also cumbersome to the sentences.

One of the named characters is Eliza Cunningham, a fetching historian who comes to the town to study the paramour of a former governor of the state who spent his final days there. The governor's mistress was also named Eliza Cunningham. "The grandson" is a descendant of the governor's, and the modern Eliza becomes a love interest of both the Bluff-dweller and the grandson. Shenanigans ensue.

Also, there's the Harington trademark moment when the point of view, which had belonged to the Bluff-dweller, shifts entirely to another character, and to complicate matters it's not entirely clear who that character is. He is referred to as the French horn, but may be just the interior monologue of "the woman."

Harington intentionally keeps things mysterious, I think, because the second half of the book is really an investigation of the spiritual and its relationship to time. The people of the unnamed hamlet (if you've read other Harington books you recognize it as his fictional town of Stay More) practice an intriguing "religion." It's called Kind and its tenets are expressed in something called The Book of Kind. Kind is both the deity of the religion and the central concept. It is neither male nor female but a sort of gentle overarching spirit, more of an admonishment to be nice.

It is both the strength and weakness of "Farther Along" that it is more about the nature of time than about a standard story line. The way the story is told with the disembodied French horn supplying the narration is what makes the style innovative. It also makes it hard to follow at times. The old song says, "Farther along we'll know more about it, farther along we'll understand why." In this book, Harington is asking if that's true, and, more important, if it matters.