To the extent my novel Subway Hitchhikers can be seen as inspired, in part, by Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, my Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider has a gauzy affinity with his In Watermelon Sugar. The works themselves, fortunately, each quickly go their own admittedly quirky ways.
In revisiting my photos of New England mills that are appearing on Fridays this year here at the Red Barn, what came to mind was how much more varied the actual mills and their surrounding communities are than what existed solely in my imagination. The prompt for Big Inca originated in the low dams and remaining foundations I explored along the Susquehanna River when I lived nearby more than four decades ago, later augmented by speedy flashes as I drove past mill towns across the Northeast a decade later.
Bill, in Big Inca, is assigned to scope out a community that has old mills suitable for purchase and renovation in addition to sufficient isolation to elude public suspicion and corporate espionage. It’s romantic enough. These days, though, I’m left wondering whether such a site could have been viable then or, for that matter, now. We’ll have to leave that to the imagination, even while looking at much of the impressive resurrection that has indeed occurred since the novel was conceived.
In fact, New England is peppered with mill towns of all sizes. I have a fond memory of first approaching Harrisville, New Hampshire, as its mills, poised above me, sat bathed in golden late afternoon sunlight. Camelot could have been no more dazzling. Alas, the population, 961, is no doubt too small for the intrigue of my novel, but the living example remains a tantalizing direction the text could have pursued rather than the site I envisioned lower in a broad valley.
Big complexes like those of Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, or Nashua and Manchester, New Hampshire, or Saco-Biddeford, Maine (none of them included in the photo series) are more fitting but too metropolitan for the kind of action that unfolds in the story. Even my own Dover, at 30,000 population, is likely too large, even though three decades ago it would have welcomed the restoration of what were then decrepit factories in the heart of town.
All the same, I retain some of Bill’s dream of living in one of the mill towers, with views of the town and landscape beyond. Maybe it’s just an urban tree house? Or a forest-fire lookout, like those Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg inhabited? Or simply timeless?
Welcome to my world.
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