The Poet of Tolstoy Park

The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Ballantine Books, 2005; $21.95; 274 pages.

FROM THE DUST JACKET: "The more you transform your life from the material to the spiritual domain, the less you become afraid of death." Leo Tolstoy spoke these words, and they became Henry Stuart's raison d'être. The Poet of Tolstoy Park is the novel based on the true story of Henry Stuart's life, which was reclaimed from his doctor's belief that he would not live another year.

Henry responds to the news by slogging home barefoot in the rain. It's 1925. The place: Canyon County, Idaho. Henry is 67, a retired professor and a widower who has been told a warmer climate would make the end more tolerable. San Diego would be a good choice.

Instead, Henry chose Fairhope, Alabama, a town with utopian ideals and a haven for strong-minded individualists. Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, and Clarence Darrow were among its inhabitants. Henry bought his own ten acres of piney woods outside Fairhope. Before dying, underscored by the writings of his beloved Tolstoy, Henry could begin to "perfect the soul awarded him" and rest in the faith that he, and all people, would succeed, "even if it took eons." Human existence, Henry believed, continues in a perfect circle unmarred by flaws of personality, irrespective of blood and possessions and rank, and separate from organized religion. In Alabama, until his final breath, he would chase these high ideas.

But first, Henry had to answer up for leaving Idaho. Henry's dearest friend and intellectual sparring partner, Pastor Will Webb, and Henry's two adult sons, Thomas and Harvey, were baffled and angry that he would abandon them and move to the Deep South, living in a barn there while he built a round house of handmade concrete blocks. His new neighbors were perplexed by his eccentric behavior as well. On the coldest day of winter he was barefoot, a philosopher and poet with ideas and words to share with anyone who would listen. And, mysteriously, his "last few months" became years. He had gone looking for a place to learn lessons in dying and studiously advanced to claim a vigorous new life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

From Publishers Weekly: A dying man's decision to move from Idaho to Alabama becomes a quixotic spiritual journey in Brewer's ruminative, idiosyncratic first novel, based on a true story. In 1925, widowed Henry Stuart learns that he has tuberculosis and will probably be dead within a year. Stuart's initial reaction is optimistic resignation, as he regards his illness as a final philosophical journey of reconciliation, one that sends him back through the writings of his beloved Tolstoy and other literary and spiritual figures to find solace and comfort.

From Booklist: Fans of quiet, philosophical novels will find much to enjoy in Henry's musings and revelations.

From Library Journal: Brewer brings honor to this real-life, little-known eccentric from whom we could learn a great deal.... It will not escape those who fall in love with this beautiful novel that Stuart's cement beehive stands today in its original location, which is now a parking lot.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sonny Brewer owns Over the Transom Bookshop in Fairhope, Alabama, and is board chairman of the nonprofit Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. He is the former editor in chief of Mobile Bay Monthly; he also published and edited Eastern Shore Quarterly magazine, edited Red Bluff Review, and was founding associate editor of the weekly West Alabama Gazette. Brewer is the editor of the annual three-volume anthology of Southern writing, Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: "Born in Alabama in my grandmother's house in 1949," Sonny Brewer said on the day that we talked, "and pretty quickly taken away by a father who was alternately in the Air Force and a truck driver. I started first grade in Alabama but finished the year in Kentucky and started the second grade in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That kind of a pillar-to-post experience as a boy."

"Did your family read?"

"No, as a matter of fact, my sister called me exclaiming that she saw my book in the Sam's Club, and she bought ten copies. But she has not read it. My mother doesn't read and my brother doesn't, and that's okay. That's the world in which they live. Which is not to say that they have never read. But they are not avid readers -- no."

"How'd you come to reading?"

"When I was eight or nine, my great-grandfather died. Somebody needed to stay with my great-grandmother. I don't remember if I was chosen for that or volunteered. But when I would get off the school bus each day, I would walk the path down across the hill and up the hollow to my great-grandmother's house, and there was nothing to do there. There were no other kids to play with. I was there with my old grandma, and my brother and sister were left behind, and my great-grandmother didn't talk much, and she had a lot of books.

"I began taking the books down and reading until it got good and dark and sleepy time, and that's where it started -- reading those books for some few months while my great-grandmother was still alive. I remember reading Charlotte's Web and being completely spirited away from Lamar County, Alabama, and taken to a world of fantasy and imagination, and Shane, the Dog of the North."

"I wonder why she happened to have those titles."

"Her son, my great-uncle, is a Harvard-trained divinity student who's now in his middle 80s but who was an avid reader and left these books behind. So my Uncle Jay, who has also read The Poet of Tolstoy Park and sent me a nice long e-mail about it, was an avid reader as a young boy and left Alabama and went up to the schools in the Northeast and got a good education and helped me on my road to a good education by leaving behind those books at his mama's house there."

Mr. Brewer attended the University of Alabama, where he studied journalism. He graduated from the University of South Alabama, where he received a B.A. in English and creative writing. He acquired a license to teach high school in Alabama. "But," Mr. Brewer sighed, "I couldn't get a teaching job."

Brewer said that he loves Fairhope, where he's lived now since 1978. "It's where both my sons were born. My wife was born and raised across the bay in Mobile, good Catholic girl from a big Catholic family. And cousins and cousins and cousins over in Mobile, but they're over there, and we're 20 minutes away on this side of the bay."

"When did you open the bookstore?"

"We're finishing up our ninth year. It's been tough. Independent bookstores struggle with this modern era of ordering books and having them in a day without leaving your desk, and that's a tide that you cannot turn back. I was about to declare bankruptcy because my bookstore was failing. I had an appointment on a Thursday morning at 10 a.m. to sit with a lawyer and discuss the option of bankruptcy.

"At 5:00 on Wednesday afternoon, the day before, my agent, Amy Rennert in San Francisco, phoned me and said, 'Ballantine has made this offer.' Their offer -- a six-figure, two-book offer -- saved my bookstore. Things are working well with the book, so even though I have a life on the road as a writer guy now, I still love this bookstore, and even if I should enjoy financial success from the book, I would keep this bookstore. It's better than a pet cow.

"You get to read, you get to meet writers who want to come to read their book, and through the association with those other writer guys and gals have grown the stories from The Blue Moon Cafe Anthology that is now three volumes out, and I just put the finishing touches on volume four. All that came through the doors here at the bookstore. We have to have a living, we have to have a rent, and we have to have coffee, and we have to have a slice of bread to butter, we have to put gasoline in our automobiles, so we can't be silly about it.

"But you also have to open the doors of your bookstore and let 60 people come in and hear a woman read from her novel and go away having only sold seven copies of the book, but you do it. And you enjoy the evening, and people are enlightened and moved by the experience. And it ain't always about the money."

I asked Mr. Brewer how he became interested in Henry Stuart, the real-life narrator of Brewer's novel.

"I first discovered Henry Stuart by discovering the house that he built. I pulled into a parking lot, maybe 25 years ago, a real estate office complex about three miles from where I'm sitting at this bookstore of mine. I was going to sign up for a real estate course to try and find time in the day to write, and I thought if I was selling houses I would make all this money and have tons of time to write.

"When I pulled into the parking lot for my first class, there in the middle of the parking lot, surrounded on three sides by pavement, was this round, concrete house with six little windows and a door. I was stunned. It was obviously authentic and not something from a movie set because the lichen and moss were covering the outside of it, and the vines were growing up around it. I said to the woman getting out of her car beside me, 'What is this?' She said, 'It's the hermit hut, don't you know?'

"I said, 'No, I don't know anything about it.' She said, 'Go into this office building, where we're going to take our class. There's a newspaper article hanging on the wall, matted and framed, and you can read about the hermit who built this about 80 years ago.' So I went in and I found the newspaper article, and there was a photograph of Henry Stuart.

"He had a long, white beard and long, white hair, and the most piercing eyes, and the biggest, flattest bare feet you've ever seen. I was immediately drawn to his story. The next day I took off to the library and found all that I could about Henry Stuart. There wasn't much. Maybe three newspaper articles, a scrap from a magazine, two or three vintage photographs.

"I discovered he had a degree in divinity from Mount Union College, class of 1888, and yet there he was in the newspaper, being quoted, answering up to why he didn't go to church. He said, 'I have no need for the institutional church. I worship God here in God's own temple, under the stars, down these paths that I walk each day by the trees.'

"He was a transcendentalist kind of thinking fellow. I had to know more about him. I wrote maybe two magazine feature articles about Henry over the years. I wrote one newspaper piece about him, and so there he was, from the beginning, just a kindred spirit."

Why did Mr. Brewer decide to fictionalize Stuart's life?

"I decided pretty quickly I would write a novel because what I was after was the spirit of the man and not the letter of his biography. I even changed some of the facts of his life as would suit the story that I wanted to tell. But I believe that I have captured accurately and precisely the spirit of the man who was Henry James Stuart, if not the letter of his life.

"What did I change? For instance, Henry Stuart did not die on a train leaving Alabama being fetched back out west by his son. He was, in fact, brought back out west, but he lived to make that train ride and he lived for two more years and finally died in Eugene, Oregon. But in my book it seemed appropriate that a train brought him here, escorted him into this new life that he found in Alabama, and then it felt good to me that a train escorted him out. That's the license that I took."

I asked about the hut Stuart built.

"It took him a year and 16 days to build, during which time he lived in a barn. And when he bought the ten acres that he named Tolstoy Park, he painted a pine board white and lettered it 'Tolstoy Park,' and so here in these parts back then his property was known as 'Tolstoy Park.' He constructed this odd little round-domed hut that survived 80 years through hurricanes."

"And you wrote part of this book in this hut."

"I did. When I got the book deal, the next phone call I made after telling my wife we were rescued from poverty, or immediate poverty, the next phone call I made was to the banker who owns the ten acres and who developed it into an office complex. He had a squishy enough heart for historic preservation that he directed the workmen to work around it. I called him and I said, 'May I lease Henry Stuart's little house? If you'll lease it to me, I'll restore it.' Because at that point, it had plywood over the window holes at the windows. No door on it. Just a piece of wood leaned up over the door, fast-food wrappers inside. It was really being misused, abused, neglected. And the banker said, 'I'll rent it to you for $9 a month for ten years or so.'

"When I finished the book, I took a break from the manuscript and went up there and remodeled and restored Henry's home. It looks for all the world now like maybe he went out for a walk and will be back any minute. It's furnished, there are curtains on the window, there's a potbelly stove, there are books on the shelves."

"Your fictionalization of Henry Stuart's life is a book about how to die."

"It is. It's also a book about how to live by a willingness to admit that we all have a short time on this earth. And Henry said, 'I'll face it. I admit that I will die. The doctor said I will. I believe it.'

"He didn't necessarily resist that, but what he did was he decided, 'If I'm dying in a year or so, I'll live each day until I die, and I will live that day in the manner that I choose.' He lived in that little round house for almost a quarter of a century. He just did what he did. He grew his own food. He baked his own bread. He became a vegetarian."

"How did it change your life to write about Henry?"

"Well, for one thing, I own a bookstore, and I have been on the backside of the counter selling books. The biggest change has been to find myself on the other side of the bookstore counter, this time as an author out there traveling from Miami to San Francisco to Atlanta, talking about my book, and here at the age of 57 all of a sudden I'm an author. It's so crazy.

"A lady sat beside me in a bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, when I was signing books. She came up and she sat down next to me, and I opened a book to sign it, and she looked at me, and she began weeping and told me how her husband had died 11 years ago, and her two adult sons lost their father, and how these books were for her sons and how she thought that this book might convey to those boys something of what was going through their daddy's mind knowing he was dying of cancer, something of the spiritual hardship that he faced and something of the loneliness and something of the desire to leave something behind for them. So then at that point, I get choked up, and those were experiences that are new to me."

As for Henry Stuart's hermit's hut, Mr. Brewer said, "We're trying to get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If I'm successful in that effort, then the owner of the land will grant a preservation easement to the Alabama Historical Commission, effectively saving Henry's hut forever. So that if you come in three years, and there's not a Walgreen's drugstore there instead of Henry's crazy little round house, you will be able to walk into it. If you can't get here, then if I've done my job, in your mind's eye, in your imagination, you can feel the house, and that's the next best thing to being here."

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