We’ve all heard about the brutal Texas summers. But consider the state’s savage winter events, like the February 1956 snowstorm that claimed 23 lives, killed livestock where it stood, and prevented all modes of transport. The Texas autumns provide little relief: the one-town barrier island of Galveston was wiped out by the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history in September 1900. Ike and the unnamed hurricane of 1919 each struck Texas in the month of September. Spring offers its share of lethal weather, with tornadoes pitching freight trucks into the air like cheap toys, and dust storms killing even the vultures.
In their introduction to Woody Guthrie’s novel House of Earth, Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp gamely describe how the author was called to activism by Texas panhandle dust storms and mud blizzards. Every single claim in that last sentence makes us blink. To reiterate, yes, renown folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a novel. Yes, that Johnny Depp–the one fresh off of his dust bowl animated feature Rango–has thrown his hat into the uncertain ring of book publishing. And yes, Texas farmers once watched brown snow fall from white clouds. So even the editors’ notes are worth the purchase price; here is where we learn that Guthrie’s breaking point was not the rise of Hitler, the Ludlow Massacre or the usurpation of the public sector into the private, even if each of these factored into his songs. What inspired Guthrie to take up musical arms was the vicious Texas weather, and its disproportionate impact on farmers, and on the poor.
The book’s synopsis lies in the title, both the literal and figurative houses of earth. Wood rots and succumbs to termites. Its manufacturing and transportation energy is high. It performs poorly in rain and humidity. But adobe persists. It is excavated just over there, built into bricks just over here, and constructed right where we stand. Little freight, no import duties, and a low carbon footprint. Considered this way, Johnny Depp is hardly the wild card here. He is a talented actor with an arresting face, a celebrity in very sense. But perhaps his best-known character is a shaggy mime, and lately he has seemed content to make serial films based on amusement park rides. Think of House of Earth then as Depp’s Very Special Episode, his Oscar contention after too many pyrotechnic blockbusters. As he writes in the introduction, Guthrie was far ahead of his time on the matter of building science. Today U.S. energy efficiency ratings for doors, windows and siding materials are determined for cold climates only, not in any geography-specific way (hardly forward thinking, considering our warming planet). We prefer exotic, remote materials to those made locally. We have yet to conquer the humble roof leak.
This modern reading is only possible at all because of the timeless plot, which is slow with heat and sluggish with drought. We can count the number of scenes on one hand. In the first half of the novel wheat sharecroppers Tike and Ella May Hamlin work, make love, and watch cars on the nearby Highway 66. She compares the vehicles–minuscule with distance–to termites. Their wood-framed house sags with rot: “You little ole rotten piss soaked bastard,” Tike curses. (The reader soon recognizes any discussion of rebuilding as pillow talk. Ella May and Tike speak of a hypothetical adobe farmhouse the same way modern couples speak of early retirement in Tuscany. Not going to happen.) The book’s second half is set a year later. The rotting wood house sags ever further. Ella May is pregnant, and an old injury to her breast courses with pain. There is a worrisome spot where for months she believed herself only to be bruised. Her midwife is running late, and snow is on its way.
The author handles the dialects unapologetically. For reference, note that Pär Lagerkvist published Barabbas four years after Guthrie wrote House of Earth, and Camus published The Plague one year after. These are stout peers, and admittedly the folk singer’s tongue-rending dialogue does not live up. Ella May says of a leg massage, “Gosh dern whiz a might gee ohh. Tike, you’ve not got the least idea how good the feel of your hands is.” Elsewhere Tike, failing to define superstition, says “It’s th’ words of th’ dead civilizations an’ th’ civilizations that ain’t even been born yet.”
Moreover the sex scene, for those who count the first grope to the last gasp, is over 40 pages long. It is startlingly personal, too, what with Tike’s baby talk and Ella May’s play-by-play commentary. Guthrie’s intention here, and with the dialect, is clear. The return to dried earth homes–which are “fireproof, windproof, dirtproof, bugproof, thiefproof” and rotproof–is a return to paradise, and to the incorruption of childhood. But still there are no easy answers or true allies. Farm owners build houses meant to weaken and fall, government officials suggest farmers grow smaller crops, and the bankers foreclose on exactly those plots of land they find most livable. Private ownership means pride in efforts, but also exploitation and greed. Dirt brings produce, but chokes cattle during dust storms. Wind carries seed, but kills, destroys, erodes. (Neither is the metaphor of bodily fluid as seed lost on the author or his boorish main character.)
There are moments when Guthrie’s prose means sheer beauty: “spirits of the dead carrying their own dirt, howling, begging, crying somewhere on the upper plains to be born again.” Watching the Hamlins struggle against nature–human or otherwise–is nearly as agonizing as watching Ella May struggle with her health. When these three factors come together, the book is simply unstoppable: “there are a few people that work to hurt, to hold down, to deny, to take from, to cheat the rest of us. And these few are the thieves of the body, the germs of the disease of greed, they are few but they are loud and strong.”
Imagine the same text as this, not just published in our decade but written in it, by a living author. Take the same setting, characters, plot, book cover and the rube colloquialisms. Remove the familiar personalities Guthrie and Depp: it is unlikely that you would have read even this far. But Guthrie wrote presciently, breathtakingly of a topic that would not rest and should never rest: the science of homebuilding. Only recently have we affixed the term sustainable construction, but the problem has been around as long as domiciles have. Without the names Guthrie and Depp House of Earth would be confined to the vast archives of genre fiction. But indeed those names are affixed. And should we read it? Absolutely.