Recycling characters, houses, and even authors from 19th century English novels is a cottage industry. Jane Austen has inspired many, amongst them, P. D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (2011) and Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013). Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) gives a post-colonial reading of the mad woman in the attic. David Morrell turns Thomas De Quincy into an opium-eating detective in a series of novels beginning with Murder as a Fine Art (2013). Dickens of course has not been ignored. Amongst appropriations of his characters, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) brilliantly brings the convict Magwitch to life in Australia and England.
Joseph Allen Boone’s Furnace Creek is part of the continuing fascination with all things in 19th century English culture and novels. But it is a great deal more — the equal of the best of these rereadings/rewritings. Boone structures his novel around the form of Great Expectations. His Pip is Newton Seward from the small-town world of Rocky Hill, Virginia, which is undergoing the racial and sexual upheavals of 1960s America. Newt’s parents are a confused car dealer father and a mother who, when she knows her son has the option of leaving their world for a private school in Massachusetts, says “Go,” her certitude enforced by her sense of the limitations of their world.
His Miss Havisham becomes Julian Brewster, at once “evil sorcerer and fairy godfather” who lives in a nearby almost Gothic mansion with a butler named George Geronimo Washington and who hires Newt to order his library and serve as his general factotum. The Estella becomes Brewster’s niece and nephew, the twins Mary Jo and Marky Joe Sumner, who make Newt feel “common” because they seem to have stepped out of a Fitzgerald novel. That Mary Jo warns him “I have no heart” does not deter his total adoration of her. And the convict: Zithra Jackson Brown, a Black woman who “first became aware of herself when she was a very small girl apprehended for thieving tomatoes from a garden,” an echo of Magwitch’s initial identity. She first appears as a vicious escaped convict who finds Newt “whacking” off in his private space, Furnace Creek. She grabs hold of his privates and gives a list of demands — which Newt more than fulfills, feeling some pity and great fear of her.
The richness of these characters makes Furnace Creek work brilliantly. Boone gives them stories that compel the reader to see them as individuals in a specific time and place, not just characters suggesting Great Expectations. Newt is 35 when he is telling this story; its immediacy has become part of his identity. The encounter with the convict and the guilt his actions create make him feel always under surveillance: “… I couldn’t shake my old feeling … that my life had been stripped of its privacy and that a thousand eyes lay in wait, ready to report my every move.” As he says after meeting the twins, with both of whom he develops intense emotional and sexual connections: “I felt bewildered and confused, as if I had entered an overgrown labyrinth and, like the ill-fated child of a dark fairytale, forgotten to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to retrace my path.” These characters, plus Samson Washington, son of George Geronimo, and Miranda, whom Newt meets at Phipps Academy in Andover, live in Newt’s fairy tale even as they pull him beyond it.
Furnace Creek is Newt’s story of his emotional and sexual progress, his awakening to identities his early life had not revealed or that he had repressed, especially to the recognition that he is gay. He sees the labyrinths that he and his friends make for themselves; he follows the path out, even if the way forward requires understandings that he is in no way prepared for. He leaves Harvard for Italy and furniture design, a movement that seems right because it shows his gradual release from the imprisonment of his great expectations. Boone’s story takes fascinating turns, especially with the return of the convict to the narrative (there is even a Carravagio in this part of the story) and additional discoveries about Julian Brewster’s earlier life. But the novel’s commitment to realism takes it far from the “romantic side of familiar things.”
What makes Boone so adept in Furnace Creek is his refusal to allow Great Expectations to control his storytelling and character construction. There are resonances, of course, and they always work — some to very funny effect. When Newt tells his parents of his first interview with Julian Brewster, he gives “reckless embellishments” to the realities of an already amazing place and owner. The story he invents for his Methodist family about Julian Brewster’s private chapel is laugh-out-loud funny. But always the relationships between Dickens’ novel and Boone’s make the reader think more deeply about how each informs the other. His writing — especially his figurative language — is at times lyrical, memorable, and always in service to the story.
And yes, Boone provides two endings. Both involve his return to Rocky Hill eleven years later. Much has changed. His father remains a clueless man, but his mother is now a successful businesswoman. The first ending shows Newt’s resignation: “I was alone, but I was alive.” The second presents a “perfect day at Furnace Creek,” with the surviving characters there — and with Miranda’s son, Newt. But in both endings, Newt knows that “some crimes, like some romances, don’t have tidy endings. Sometimes we have to learn to live with the holes that our wounded pasts carve in us, building a life around those empty spaces.” The lessons of great expectations indeed.
By Joseph Allen Boone
March 25, 2022