Carolyn Chute on Tap Water, Thinking Dogs, and the Inspirational Quality of Coffee: Postcard From Biddeford, Maine

Joshua Bodwell

An evening with the novelist Carolyn Chute is wonderfully unliterary. This is especially true when she is reading in her native Maine. When Chute appeared at the McArthur Public Library in Biddeford during the last week of April, the room was filled to near capacity with fans outfitted in flannel shirts, gum-soled L. L. Bean boots, and fleece pullovers. Spring is mud season in Maine—quickly warming days and cool evenings—and the crowd was dressed accordingly.

When Chute’s novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine (Ticknor & Fields), her portrait of a poor family living in a tiny, depressed town in the country’s easternmost state, was released in 1985, she seemed to burst fully formed onto the literary scene. The novel, whose first bit of dialogue asserts, “‘If it runs, a Bean will shoot it! If it falls, a Bean will eat it,’” garnered comparisons to literary giants such as Faulkner and Steinbeck. It also brought Chute (pronounced choot) a legion of loyal, compassionate fans.

On this evening in Biddeford, the crowd erupted into applause as Chute rolled down the aisle toward the stage in a well-worn wheelchair. She wore a homemade cloth tourniquet wrapped around her left foot. With a little help, Chute negotiated two steps up onto the stage and settled gingerly into an old black rocking chair. “Adult onset diabetes, I think,” she muttered by way of explanation, and the audience let out a collective, empathetic moan.

At just sixty-one-years-old, Chute exudes an earthy, woods-woman aura, like a character from one of her novels. Her wild, graying hair was pulled back beneath a faded green handkerchief. Round, gold, wire-framed glasses sat high on the bridge of her nose. At her ankles, above her skuffed-up work boots, light blue long johns poked from beneath a purple batik peasant skirt. She wore a black button-up sweater vest over a purple shirt.

The word authentic comes to mind when considering Chute. She doesn’t put on airs and she doesn’t mince words. As the library’s assistant director, Sally Leahey, attempted to introduce the author by reading a list of odd jobs she has worked in her lifetime, Chute interrupted with a smile, “They’re all lies! They’re almost all made up!”

“I was only a waitress for about an hour,” insisted Chute. “They put me right on the cash register and I’d never seen one before…not from that side anyway.”

After her introduction, Chute continued: “Well, I’ve always thought it’s boring to listen to authors read…especially in a voice like mine.” She fiddled with a copy of her new novel, The School on Hearts Content Road, published last November by Atlantic Monthly Press. “I’m getting bored already!”

As Chute described the book—which is told in multiple points of view and set at an off-the-grid commune where the polygamous leader is known simply as the Prophet—she slipped in digs at Wal-Mart and promotion of legalized marijuana. But even as her political views surfaced, Chute’s disarming innocence kept the audience chuckling.

Before The School on Heart’​​​​​​​s Content Road arrived late last year, Chute had published four other novels, plus a revised, “finished version” of her debut. According to Chute, The School on Heart’​​​​​​​s Content Road is one-fifth of a manuscript that was originally 2,600 pages long but has since been broken apart into five separate books.

Though Chute has been working on this project, what she calls a “five-o-gy,” since the early 1990s, she has also infamously busied herself as the founder of the Second Maine Militia, a group she describes as a “no-wing organization.” Chute’s compound-like home in Parsonsfield, in the hills of western Maine, is something of a headquarters for the militia. The home is deep in the woods, at the end of an unpaved road. In the winter, the only heat comes from a woodstove. There is no hot water; there are no indoor toilets. Chute seems to thrive on this rough-edged lifestyle or, at the very least, draw inspiration from it that she is able to shape it into compelling literature.

When Chute eventually began to read, she stopped every five or six lines, closed the book on her lap, and explained something that had already happened early in the novel. “Ah, see, this is what’s boring about readings,” she groaned. When she finally gave up on explanations and trusted the audience to fill in the blanks, her reading soared, particularly as she slipped into the voice of one scene’s five-year-old narrator. The crowd was rapt.

Chute paused at one point to sip from a plastic water bottle that had been stripped of its label. “I lied,” she said, grinning and holding up the bottle. “It’s tap water! How much do you all pay for city water?” A handful of people called out their annual water bills. “Well, we better drink the tap water then,” said Chute. “What are we gonna do if we can’t drink the water?” Then she turned hesitantly back to her book, muttering, “Ah, this reading is boring.”

Finally, Chute set the novel aside for good. “I think I’ve had enough,” she said. “Let’s just talk.”