Home > Literature, Reviews > “The Bear Went Over the Mountain”: A Precise Shambolic Satire

“The Bear Went Over the Mountain”: A Precise Shambolic Satire

The satirical targets of William Kotzwinkle’s wonderful comic novel The Bear Went Over the Mountain can be a bit prosaic and specific, but its shambolic charm and unswerving commitment to the surprisingly resilient running jokes that constitute its backbone of humour carries it through.

A repeatedly published, sometimes bestselling author who lives on a remote island in Maine, Kotzwinkle quite obviously adapts plentiful personal experience to satirize the simple and bizarre lives of rural folk, the modern anxieties of urbane city-dwellers, the obscure interests of academics, and the sycophantic odyssey of the book promotion tour. Kotzwinkle begins with Arthur Bramhall, a frumpy and undertalented University of Maine English professor holed up in a shack in the Maine woods trying to write a cynical but hopefully lucrative rip-off of a romantic mass-market best-seller. Unfortunately, just as he finishes the manuscript, his cabin burns down and he loses his only copy. Pouring his frustration and loneliness into a passionate replacement novel called Destiny and Desire, Bramhall completes it with great toil and pride. Paranoid about this much finer piece of work being lost as well, Bramhall hides it on the edge of his property bear-went-over-the-mountain-cvrbeneath a tree.

Bramhall has terrible luck, though. His stashed masterpiece is spotted by a bear native to the area. Thinking it might be food (this bear is always thinking of food, because he is a bear), the bear checks out the briefcase. This bear can read a bit and he recognizes in his limited ursine way that the book has potential. So he steals some clothes, makes his way to Manhattan, and sells the manuscript to a big-city publisher. Inventing a human-like name for himself (Hal Jam), the bear finds that his natural animal instincts make him surprisingly well-adapted to success as a vigorous male writer in 1990s America.

This book requires a touch of suspension of disbelief to buy into the bear’s rapid rise in American society, but it’s much more focused on everyday humour of observation than these required fantastical assumptions might suggest. The people that the bear meets and who facilitate his rise invariably interpret and understand the bear’s limited qualities and simple, gnomic verbal statements through their own lenses. The bear’s OCD literary agent admires his rugged disregard for social rules (he imagines him as a new Hemingway, an impression reinforced by the bear’s request to be served a raw female salmon with “lots of eggs” in a fancy restaurant). His homosexual editor misreads statements about stealing food for a frank confession of same-sex desire (“I wanted his meat”). A fellow bestselling author of books about angels see in the bear a kindred spirit and a muse; a right-wing evangelical preacher tries to use the simple fellow to jumpstart a presidential campaign; and he reluctantly “ruts” with a Hollywood professional woman questing after the movie rights to his hit book.

Hal Jam’s book tour is a riot, as he demands a constant supply of cheese snacks, attacks an assistant producer when alarmed before a television appearance, and marks his territory in various luxury hotels. His personal style is distinctly tacky (he enjoys clip-on ties and novelty telephones, because he is a bear) and he fills his Manhattan pad with cakes, pies, and jars of honey. He impresses a self-important literary critic at a party with a haunted phrase “I’ve heard the howling of the dogs”; the critic thinks it’s a profound statement about the nature of contemporary literature, but in fact the bear just had a run-in with some canines in Washington Square Park (other animals see through to his true ursine nature better than humans do).

As long as The Bear Went Over the Mountain is focused on the bear, it’s brilliant stuff. Kotzwinkle contrasts the bear’s adventures of gradually-advancing human-ness with Arthur Bramhall’s rural search for new inspiration for a book while he becomes increasingly bear-like, however, and the latter’s activities are less interesting and much less funny. Bramhall’s chapters are shorter than the bear’s, at least, and they do lead narratively to a courtroom confrontation over the ownership of Destiny and Desire. But the reader is definitely eager to see what the bear has got up to now while working through the Bramhall sections.

This is because Kotzwinkle’s bear is a genius comedic creation, both a mirror for modern American insecurities and a memorable fish-out-of-water figure imbued with a proud and bumbling grace. The bear listens always to his primal urges, and this makes him endearing to and successful in a society that imagines itself to be based on the pursuit of those basic urges and in the liberty requisite to their pursuit. But in Kotzwinkle’s well-modulated satire of American society and culture, human Americans have set up a forest of arbitrary obstacles to their happiness. It takes a guileless character from the actual forest to overcome these obstacles.

Categories: Literature, Reviews
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