Although I knew exactly who the author was when I began reading The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All, I was tempted to check the back cover to be absolutely certain that I wasn’t reading the memoir of a person who had lived through the astounding events described on the pages. This novel about lumberjacks working on a piece of mountain land in Idaho known for being impossible to work rings so true that it’s hard to believe this didn’t really happen to the author. Josh Ritter, who previously wrote the incredible Bright’s Passage and is a singer-songwriter who will become the soundtrack to all of your days (if he isn’t already) didn’t mention hearing these stories from a grandparent in the acknowledgements, so everything that happens in this beautiful book that I’d call a (very) profane fairy tale for adults, came out of his imagination. It’s just a breathtaking novel.
His ability to tell a story through choosing the perfect words shouldn’t be a surprise. Ritter’s songs always tell a story, with characters made known in the language he carefully chooses. The central character in this novel, Weldon Applegate, is introduced to us on the first page of the book with the way that he describes his ‘mortal enemy’ Joe Mouffreau as a “lying, foolish, condescending idiot, well worth my bitter spite, and I gotta hand it to him, Joe did a bang up job as my mortal enemy for most of my life.” Joe really is a part of Weldon’s life throughout this book and, let me tell you, that description is accurate. Joe isn’t the only enemy that Weldon will face, and his enemies are balanced by the many friends in his life as an orphan lumberjack in the wilds of Idaho. ‘Jacking’ is not an easy life and it’s one he is brought into by his widowed father and the men his father worked side-by-side with for decades. Men with names like Unto Sisson, Alright Edwards and Jelly Jacobson – a man who people said could jump ten feet in the air – and people in the small town where they spend their summers, called Cordelia. These lumberjacks would spend the cold months cutting down trees and preparing them for sale to the sawmills in the spring, when they could collect their pay and find other work until the ‘jacking’ season began again.
The Idaho community where Weldon and his father went to live after his mother died was small and filled with loyal friends; with a hotel, jail, barber shop, general store, train station, and a church. Tom, Weldon’s father, felt it was the ideal place to raise his son, and where he could find work as the manager of the general store and Weldon would benefit from the small school in town (but he later whispered to Weldon that he’d spent enough time at school and could get a job sweeping up hair at the barber shop). Tom was able to convince his wife’s family of this jewel of a small town while he also convinced himself. He didn’t think he would return to life as a lumberjack, or see his son following that path, until they were visited by a man from his father’s past, telling stories of the riches that could be possible if they were brave enough to log that unworkable plot of land on the mountain. Once Tom caught the dream of going back into the woods, Weldon’s father was impossible to convince otherwise. I’m warning you now, it might just be time for you to set aside all other chores and just snuggle down because you aren’t likely to put this book back down again until the final page.
My father used to say that profanity was only appropriate for “people in the service and dockworkers” and, having read this story of constant danger and mayhem, I think he would amend his statement to include lumberjacks on his list. When Ritter describes the process of finally getting a load of timber to the river and experiencing a log jam “..someone had to go out there with a spike-ended peavy pole and slow-fuse dynamite and try to blow the jam away. If you lived through all of that and didn’t get exploded by the dynamite, crushed by a big wall of tumbling logs, drowned in the river, dashed against the rocks, frozen to death, impaled by your own peavy, lost in an avalanche, crippled by a widow-maker snowfall or killed by any of the other ways that are too numerous and creative to even try imagining…” well, we can certainly understand why anyone who worked in those conditions would become creative with profanity in conversation. Context. All of the stages of Weldon’s life – even those moments that are truly terrifying – are described with equal passion and clarity.
This is a rollicking story that you wish you could hear told to you by a warm fire in a forest of tall trees. Our eyes would grow wide as Josh Ritter recounted it to us, perhaps just strumming his guitar while he shared this mixture of a folk tale and coming-of-age novel. Weldon is about 12-years-old when he begins to share his story and he falls in and out of love, meets more than one mortal enemy (truly, isn’t one enough?), hides moonshine from the authorities, jumps off of a moving train, is hogtied, is covered in fleas, befriends a Witch, and commits murder (also, isn’t once enough?). I’m leaving things out so that I don’t spoil the plot of the story – more things happen to Weldon than those that I have listed.
This book truly has everything. If you want to get a taste of the novel, Ritter has an excerpt on his personal website, and if you need something to listen to while you read it, you really can’t go wrong with anything he sings. This is a magical book to get lost in – whether he is battling the elements of the forest, reminiscing about lost love, or working up a furious hate on Joe Mouffreau, you will be ensnared by the life of Weldon Applegate.