A cardinal rule of novel review is to avoid plot spoilers. Adherence to this convention in this case might require contortions on the part of the critic because any reader of great expectations will have a rough idea of how Boone’s narrative will unfold. Furnace Stream deserves many such readers, who will appreciate both the familiar plot contours and the changes Boone makes to his Victorian material. Revisited through the lenses of the 1960s and 1970s, with scenes set in the rural South of the United States, at several of New England’s venerable educational institutions (or their replacements) and, as the mystery is accelerating, in old Europe, Furnace Stream also invites readers drawn to a novel of romance, self-discovery, the search for justice and adventure. Readers who have never dived into Dickens don’t need CliffsNotes to enjoy it Furnace Streambecause it is much more than a story.
The upheavals of the time, including the struggle for racial justice, the Vietnam War, class stratification and inequality, women’s rights and gay rights, form the backdrop to the story of Newt, told in his own voice. One of the pleasures of the novel is Boone’s accurate descriptions and the perfect imitation of the look, feel and sound of the settings – from rural Virginia to a northern prep school, from Harvard to Rome and Paris ( remember Europe at $10 a day?). Boone has a gift for crystallizing detail, rich in meaning, and he displays it when he stages and describes the clothes and the speeches of his characters. I burst out laughing at the name of Newt’s little brother: Jubal! Civil War buffs will recognize the sardonic tribute to a Virginia Confederate general, Jubal Early, whose losses in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy. Southerners of the era Boone portrays celebrated the biggest losers without irony. In rural southern Virginia until the 1990s, I taught young white men named after the heroes of the lost cause: Braxton, Jackson, Lee, Zebulon.
The author had a lot of fun with the names. Consider black butler George Geronimo Washington, whose middle name Apache resistance fighter disrupts slave-owner etiquette. The butler’s son, Samson, claims a different source for the surname: Booker T. Washington. Subversion and subjugation vie for dominance as George Geronimo ferries his employer around his grand estate, serves as the audience for his monologues, defends him against his critics, and endures a steady stream of petulant criticism. The Master of the Rectory, the Miss Havisham of history, is Julian Armistead Brewster III. “Armistead” alludes to the author of City Tales, Armistead Maupin, as well as Lewis Armistead, the Confederate brigadier general who led his brigade to the Confederate high water mark during Pickett’s Charge. The elderly bachelor, the last remaining heir to the furniture factory family in Newt’s hometown, is an arc manipulator whose patronage sets Newt’s story in motion, connecting him to the seductive Mary siblings. Jo and Marky, Brewster’s orphaned niece and nephew.
Brewster’s methodical description conveys both the rich allusiveness and skillful display of detail in Boone’s prose:
By all accounts, old Julian Brewster was a strange bird, but no more eccentric than the living waxworks that populated every remote southern hamlet in 1967: a patrician bachelor in his sixties who remained out of step with his time, a practitioner of the Catholic Faith (as close to heresy as you could get in Rocky Hill), a fastidious dresser never seen in public except in dapper whites, linen jacket, bow tie and fedora fitting Joel Chandler Harris’s tales of plantation life. These days, he was more of a memory than a city dandy, rarely seen teetering on the grounds of his sprawling, neglected estate or shouting gentrified obscenities at the neighborhood boys who sneaked over his walls to steal muscat grapes from its once legendary arbor.
This key character will give Newt a job, initiate his social and aesthetic upbringing, propel him into the society of Mary Jo and Marky, and tantalize the bookish scholar with a mysterious past that drives an archival romance in the novel.
Boone’s thunderous plot swings into action with an unforgettable opening scene, in which Zithra Jackson Brown, an escaped black convict and the next-door neighbor’s former hired helper, interrupts 13-year-old Newt in the middle of ejaculation in its hideout, the eponymous Furnace Creek. She knows exactly who he is. Terrified and ashamed, Newt capitulates to the convict’s larcivious instructions and returns with cash, a black ledger belonging to the corrupt judge who lives next door, and a bottle of fuchsia nail polish (Newt’s impulsive addition). readers of great expectations will appreciate the deft revision of the gripping opening of Pip’s story, with a condemned, a request and a chilling submission. Faithfulness to Dickens’ original at the start suggests that the rest of the story will maintain an allusive parallel, and it does, but not at the expense of a satisfying original reading experience. You don’t need to know the Dickens novel to appreciate and appreciate Furnace Stream, but it adds a layer. Boone brings Dickens’ plot to the post-war South in a meaningful way, creating new versions of Pip, Magwitch, Estella and Miss Havisham with empathy and verve – and the iconic characters will never be the same!
Newt’s sharp and (crucially) imperceptive observations highlight his experiences and moral growth. Its emotional and libidinal nature, and its confusion on material and erotic matters, establish a rich comedy that is both funny and poignant. However Furnace Stream addresses the social, political, and ethical dilemmas of its historical context, it is not a dull exercise in social studies storytelling. The social and political world is undeniably present, pressing urgently: uh oh, here comes the Vietnam War. The determining influence of the various generic registers deployed by Boone is just as powerful. In addition to the love affairs and wanderjahr of the bildungsroman tradition, the novel’s plot is intertwined with strands of mystery fiction, archival romance, and run and hunt adventure. These elements return to the Victorian tradition which provides the matrix for a 20th century history.
Dickens may have been dubbed “the inimitable”, but that hasn’t stopped contemporary novelists from trying it. Joseph Boone joins a company of famous contemporary writers who have revisited Dickens’ stories, characters and life experiences, extracting them for material. Among the author’s most distinguished afterlives are those of Peter Carey Jack Maggs (1997), Lloyd Jones Mr Pip (2006), and acclaimed VS Naipaul A house for Mr. Biswas (1961), in each of which Dickens’ fiction serves as a resonant intertext. The list grows exponentially when you consider the many novelists who have earned the nickname “Dickensian”, sometimes for their melodrama and fictional 19th century worlds (Sarah Waters, Susanna Clarke); sometimes for their multi-plot stories and pungent satirical prose (Vikram Chandra, Marlon James, Rohinton Mistry, Donna Tartt, Zadie Smith); and sometimes for the way they mix long-form seriality with social satire, critiques of capitalism, and the over-the-top grotesque (as in later seasons of Thread).
Very few adapters stay as close to the original story of their inspiration as Furnace Stream fact: it’s a risk that could make the new job seem like a gimmick. Yet Boone’s novel excels precisely in its fidelity to the spirit of Dickens’ storytelling, where excoriating satire jostles with empathetic portrayals. Boone revives the satirical spirit of Dickens in his humorous dispatches of the recognizable social types that populate Newt’s world. But he also manages to construct a story – complete with a legacy plot, crimes, secrets and revelations – in which his revised versions of Dickens’ characters achieve more satisfying, fair and compassionate results than their originals. Fear not – there are plenty of rewarding servings, and the tale wouldn’t be Dickensian without a solid whipping of pathos. Boone invests in the obsessions, preoccupations, failures and aspirations of its central characters, illuminating them from within with the glow of humanity.
For decades, first as an English professor at Harvard and later at the University of Southern California, Joseph Allen Boone built a reputation as a master teacher and leading scholar in the field of the novel. . Author of Tradition versus tradition: the love and form of fiction (1987), Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Formation of Modernism (1998), and The Homoerotic of Orientalism (2014) and co-editor of two collections of essays, Boone has already translated his expertise in 19th century fiction into creative work, writing the libretto for a lyrical adaptation of Herman Melville The trusted man (1857). After a hugely successful career as a literary and cultural critic, this Los Angeles resident now emerges as a compelling storyteller in his own right.
Suzanne Keen’s most recent publication is a collection of her essays, Empathy and reading: affect, impact and co-creative reader (Routledge, 2022). She is president of Scripps College in Claremont, California.