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Stephanie Doyon’s The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole is a story of a small-town boy struggling to emerge from the shadow of his perfect nemesis. The book, Doyon’s first adult novel (she has ghostwritten and written teen novels), richly details a lifelong rivalry between two men amidst a backdrop of lively characters and intricate subplots worthy of any town gossip maven. Doyon’s writing is colorful and confident, in the way of John Irving and Richard Russo, and she is able to balance both the tragic and the comical with the deft insight of a woman who knows her small towns (Doyon grew up in Lisbon). But apart from her ability to craft a thoroughly readable story is the care with which Doyon gives depth to even the nastiest of characters. The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole aspires to be nothing more than a great tale, and in this it succeeds, but Doyon’s sensitivity to all of her characters, honest or deceitful, gives this classic story of rivalry enough texture to make it memorable.
Residents of the backwater town of Cedar Hole know their place. Townsfolk know their town is not as nice as neighboring Palmdale. They can tell a foreigner (or someone not born and bred in Cedar Hole) by the shape of his nose or the slope of his brow. And they don’t want to leave Cedar Hole because the world outside is dangerous. The rules governing the inner workings of the town are just as strict. The child of a good family is trustworthy. The child of a bad family is always rotten.
And so Doyon introduces us to two Cedar Hole boys — the consistently perfect Robert J. Cutler and the forever imperfect Francis "Spud" Pinkham — who throughout the course of their lives will alter the town’s notions of greatness and possibility. The novel begins with their first meeting in fourth grade and continues through their maturity, skipping effortlessly across decades and back again to follow the characters through adolescence to adulthood. We are introduced first to Cutler, a 10-year-old "so shiny and well-groomed" that his teacher assumes he’s a recent transplant from some nicer town. Cutler wows everyone from the beginning — he speaks perfectly, is polite and courteous, and even volunteers his time at the Cedar Hole library, which he will work for the rest of his life to improve. In the same fourth-grade class sits Francis Pinkham, the youngest of 10 children and the whipping boy of his nine bullish sisters. The adults in town assume Pinkham will carry on the tradition of under-achievement perfected by his sisters — though he is as bright as Cutler, his life is dogged by the expectation of failure. But Doyon’s affection for Pinkham is keener than that for Cutler — though both characters are well-defined and likeable, it is Pinkham whom Doyon closely follows and, in the end, it is Pinkham who becomes the "Greatest Man in Cedar Hole."
Doyon’s impressive knack for carving realistic characters doesn’t stop with Cutler and Pinkham. Cedar Hole is full of role-players, each as reprehensible and endearing as the next. Here, there are vindictive wives and cloying spouses, antsy teens and bumbling cops. But punctuating the life Doyon details in the town is the notion that Cedar Hole is an end-of-the-road place. In the center of town sits a vacant train depot, a testament to the immobility of the townsfolk. Once the "most elegant building in town," the depot was closed after less than a year because no one wanted to ride the train out of town. As Doyon writes, ". . . most Cedar Hole residents considered the world outside their perimeter to be an untrustworthy and dangerous place." In this self-contained universe, Francis and Robert compete for attention and esteem.
While the dismal town of Cedar Hole is never anchored geographically, it’s easy to imagine it existing anywhere in this state. The rural small-town ethics driving the characters smack of Maine mentality — humility is revered, responsibility to family and community trumps all else. But besides this, there’s also a passing reference to Funtown (sadly, the characters never go).
But even if you haven’t driven through a town like it, or lived in one, Doyon’s depiction of Cedar Hole is intimately familiar. The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole manages to span decades effortlessly and depict characters who are both absurd and realistic. The story includes tragedy, failure, and success and ends pleasantly with all strings tied up neatly. It’s a testament to Doyon’s talent that this tale of small-town rivalry and earnestness never hits a false note. Instead, it rings oddly true from start to finish.
Stephanie Doyon reads at the Brunswick Bookland on Saturday, August 6, and at Books, Etc., in Falmouth, on Saturday, August 20.
Sara Donnelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: July 15 - 21, 2005
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