North is a literary work. It's the story of four young artists who pursue their art and lives with high spirits that occasionally give out precipitously to despair as the conflicts in their lives prevail over the more stable harmonies. North's tone is lyrical; its texture is a complex interplay of humor, irony, and the emotion of intense human interaction. The story is framed within the wild environment of a remote corner of the Pacific Northwest.

Here are four brief character sketches:

Nicholas is a young, self-trained musical composer working slavishly in complete solitude. "Nicholas wore his solitude like a clown's nose. It embarrassed him. He was not a part of the world, he was an object displayed for everyone's ridicule. It wasn't hostility that he felt from the world; that would be an exaggeration! What he felt from the world was only a mild sort of amused contempt for a person who was obviously nothing more than a drone: penniless, self-absorbed, panting for an unoccupied queen to patch up the hole in his britches." [North, p. 96]

Austin is Nicholas's best friend. He's a musical composer nearing the peak of a career that has left him hollow. "He liked to remind himself that for many years he'd looked for some sort of inner calm for himself. But there were two sorts of calmness, he had discovered. One was the sort of calmness that came about when one was able to master all the voices in one's mind; this was the rich, presiding calmness of a king and his obedient subjects. The other calmness was very nearly the opposite of this: it was the calmness of having shut off each of the voices in one's mind, until one reached the summit of emptiness." [North, pp. 131-132]

Katrina is Nicholas's ambivalent companion and lover and is ill at ease in the company of artists. "How many little walking disasters were rising slowly somewhere in the back of her mind, ready to surface? She knew of three right off, but to consider them in any detail was like walking on thin ice: the cracks begin to spread to each horizon. And yet, if she left them where they were they would spread uncontrollably too. If Nicholas caught wind ... A small burn began in the back of her throat. If Nicholas caught wind he would merely see what he had ignored all along in his stupid timidity. She was not a closed book." [North, p. 238]

Margaret is Nicholas's friend. She is a painter who chooses to work alone in her farmhouse after her husband travels to Chicago and doesn't return. "She pictured him sitting on a porch rather like hers, playing the flute. The pan pipes. She wasn't sure what he would be playing but she could hear the music piping away in the woods, all alone. The little notes would float among the woods like moths, where they would be seen for a while then vanish out in the air. Perhaps she was one of those notes. She had begun strong enough, but as she traveled north she felt her steam go out, until she felt as if she too would vanish in the air." [North, p. 315]

Nicholas, Katrina, William, and Margaret are dismayed by the relentless commercial demands of the art world, but have high ambitions nevertheless: to somehow perfect their art without succumbing to those demands, and to have relationships of meaning and value. They travel north in search of a new start, to where society itself gets thin and a wilder nature begins. And indeed the world they find is rich and fertile beyond anyone's guess. But beneath their exuberance they soon find other motivations at work that are equally fueled by the wild place they've found. Of these, none is more compelling and unexpected than their deepening fear of the wild and the heightened awareness of their own fragmentation that attends it. And so what began as a hopeful adventure becomes an inexorable unraveling of their little community, and the isolation of each to the uncertain mercies of a troubled self.

Part 1 (seven chapters)

Nicholas is a young, itinerant musician working hard to become a composer. He arrives in Sacramento broke but hopes to encounter his friend Austin, a famous composer who has dropped out of public life to wrestle a professional and personal crisis. After he finds Austin, Nicholas works a series of jobs while perfecting his musical compositions with Austin's sporadic assistance. As Nicholas works alone, he is constantly torn by desire for sexual and intellectual companionship. This desire brings him to real and imaginary liaisons, and he meets Katrina, with whom he achieves a satisfying, if unstable, companionship. Their mutual dissatisfaction with their lives soon culminates in a decision to move north to the border of the United States and start a new life in this social hinterland.

In the midst of this, Austin suffers emotional and spiritual deterioration. He dropped out of public life because his musical talent no longer held meaning for him, and sought to make some larger sense of his life. He examines his life in ever finer detail, but in the end finds that the threads of it multiply endlessly without resolve. Hindered by increasing depression, he finally despairs and commits suicide.

Part 2 (seven chapters)

Nicholas leaves Sacramento in the wake of Austin's suicide and travels north to Fairhaven; Katrina soon follows. They find themselves in an exuberant natural landscape of mountains, ocean, and forest that is both enlivening and overwhelming. Nicholas' fascination with this landscape and its effect on his musical thought is in counterpoint to Katrina's increasing emotional turmoil and retreat into the unresolved circumstances of her life before meeting Nicholas. Nicholas and Katrina are followed north by friends from Sacramento, William and Margaret. William and Margaret are artists who set up studio on a derelict farm on an estuary. They, like Nicholas, become fascinated by the natural landscape around them. However, the effect of this landscape, enlivening at first, turns sinister: their art becomes dark, introspective, and oppressed, and they begin to feel that they are in a world that is somehow at odds with human activities such as art.

The slowly emerging tensions of the new environment coupled with unresolved problems brought forward into new relationships eventually has a fragmenting effect. William goes to Chicago on a business trip and doesn't return. Katrina finally leaves Nicholas and travels south to look for work. Nicholas finds a position as caretaker of a small island several hundred miles farther north in the midst of a coastal wilderness.

Part 3 (seven chapters)

Nicholas takes up residence alone on Minstrel Island. His extreme isolation and estrangement from Katrina bring him to attempt suicide. When he survives the attempt, he resolves to make a new life for himself. However, his meditative attempts at this make it clear that he may lack the power to remake himself.

Katrina and Margaret suffer their new-found isolation as well and make desperate attempts to resolve it. Each makes the long trip up the coast to Minstrel Island to visit Nicholas, who becomes the touchstone of their experiences despite their estrangement. In spite of being drawn to one another in a last trace of community, they each come to pursue what meaning they can find for themselves on their own terms. Only one of them comes to find any meaning that lies beyond the dictates of self, under circumstances that inevitably spells betrayal to another.

 (click on one of the 'North' thumbnails to load a chapter in PDF)
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Chapter 1: In which Nicholas lands in Sacramento and loses everything in the search for his old friend.

north thumbnail Chapter 2: In which Laura drags Nicholas out of the gutter only to have Nicholas drag Austin back into her life.
north thumbnail Chapter 3: In which Nicholas settles down in Laura's old house, commiserates with Austin about art and life, and attends a miserable party at which certain things are revealed.
north thumbnail Chapter 4: In which Austin and Laura collide head-on, to their mutual dismay.
north thumbnail Chapter 12: In which the four protagonists seek diversion in the late fall, and go on a mushroom hunting expedition in the mountains.
north thumbnail Chapter 18: In which Margaret despairs over losing her husband, and seeks the consolation of her old friend Nicholas.
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