Neither Mountain Nor River

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As an editor I see a lot of first-person writing cross my desk, and the majority of it is the written equivalent of a selfie. The compulsion to report on oneself goes back millions of years, and is only reinforced by the Internet blogs that everyone seems to keep these days. None of this is a bad thing – my great-great-grandmother’s journal is one of my cherished possessions – the point is, simply, that most first-person writing doesn’t reach the level of art, which makes the stuff that does noteworthy.

Mike Freeman is one of those noteworthy writers who can use their own experiences to show something bigger, something universal. When he’s on, his writing can buckle your knees it’s so good.

Mike first came to my attention in 2009, when he submitted a piece to Northern Woodlands for our Place in Mind section. I was an assistant editor at the time, charged with winnowing out the good submissions from the bad, and I passed his submission along to my boss with a note that said: “this guy’s the real deal.” I just finished reading his 224-page memoir, and looking back, I think if anything I undersold him.

The book, entitled Neither Mountain Nor River, follows Mike’s journey as a kid coming of age in the woods of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, to a 20- and 30-something living in Vermont and Alaska, to a 40-something father living in Queens, New York, and finally Newport, Rhode Island (with stops along the way in Florida and Arizona and probably a few other places I’m forgetting). The universal thread is recollections of time spent with his father hunting, fishing, and trapping – if you’re into this kind of stuff, you’re going to love the book. But these endeavors, and the details of his life, are merely the frame on which larger stories about the natural world and what it means to be human unfold. (Though the life details are quirky and interesting in their own right, especially the part where practically overnight he goes from being single and living in backwoods Alaska to living in New York City with a woman he hardly knew who was carrying their child.)

People who go to school for writing and get advanced degrees in the craft usually end up polished and clean – the musical equivalent would be an orchestral musician. While Mike mentions that he went to college, most of the decades that followed were directionless. (“...my ostensible career path from high school forward looked every bit like I’d never planned anything in my life, and professionally speaking that remains true.”) As a result he came to write like a bluesman or a jazz musician from the streets, his prose a mish-mash of styles that you could never teach. He quotes from Melville, and Frost, and Dickinson. On one trapping trip he reads the bible, and compares two of the old Alaskan guides he knows to Esau and Ishmael.

If there’s a criticism to be made it’s that Mike sometimes gets a little too carried away with big words and complicated sentence structure – a jazzman with a muted trumpet reaching for tones between the notes. There’s an example on page 5, where several neighborhoods wend diluted ethnic redoubts amidst broken-windowed industrial senescence – it’s the kind of writing that can make your brain leak out your ears a little bit if you’re not ready for it. But read the book and don’t let these minor lapses sidetrack you. His love of words is infectious, and you’ll come to see that it’s ambition, not pretention. Besides, the upside of this restless vocabulary is that when the lines hit, they’re different and fresh. I can promise you that you’ve never read anyone who writes quite like him.

It’s the quiet moments of Neither Mountain Nor River that shine the brightest. At one point he’s a doubt-addled teenager, skinning a mink with his father. “My God,” he thought sitting next to him by the fire. “I’m not alone.” That passage – which this simple quote gives no justice – caught in my throat. I haven’t been moved by a piece of writing like that in years.

Dave Mance III