The Many Change and Pass
The novel begins with the mercury poisoning of a small, impoverished boy and follows Chris Andrews, a ecological activist, Myron Seavey, a progressive librarian, and a dozen other characters, including the women Chris lives with in a house in Portland and the brother of the poisoned boy, Malcolm Kimball, who drops out of school, as they all deal with the implications of this poisoning. More
“Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.” This passage from the funeral service in The Book of Common Prayer is justly famous because it a beautiful expression, in stately Elizabethan prose, of the human condition. Given these limitations, how we spend our time on earth becomes the choice confronting every human being. Most people, like the Kimball family in this novel, are too preoccupied with daily survival to give much thought to larger issues and the common good. Others, like Ned Ridlon, are too self-absorbed in the pursuit of money and power to care. But there are always people like Myron Seavey and Chris Andrews who do fulfill Hamlet’s description of a human being as one who has “such large discourse/Looking before and after,” people who are fully conscious of their human duty to try to make the earth and the life it sustains, both human and nonhuman, better than they found it. The contrast between these two men is one of the central focuses of the novel. Myron Seavey, the inheritor of a Quaker-Unitarian activist background, is open-minded enough to fall in love with a conservative Republican woman. Chris Andrews, in contrast, is single-mindedly and overweeningly a green activist who does not believe in compromise with those whose selfishness would destroy the earth for quick profit. The action, which takes place in a small town in Maine and in Portland, begins with the mercury poisoning of a little boy and entails a wide canvas of other characters, including Adam Kaminski, who in the manner of the French eccentric Facteur Chevel builds a strange hybrid temple; Patti Ryan, a decent, progressive woman who loves Chris Andrews; Donna McClellen, who at first lives with a rock musician and who tries to convince her friend Virgie that her troubles would be lessened if she helped others at a soup kitchen; and Rev. John Covington, who is visited by doubts after a stark pastoral conversation with the sick Adam Kaminski. Finally, Shelley’s line from Adonis (whence comes the title of the novel), “The One remains, the many change and pass,” gives rise to a further question that the novel explores: who or what is the One that remains?