Published in 1969, Tom Huth’s Unnatural Axe is a time capsule from a moment — a very short blip — in American time.
The innocence of the 1960’s idealism and freedom was beginning to sour, but no one could quite figure out what was going on.
Huth’s novel tells the story of the swaggering, hyper-cool winners in Ute City (a stand-in for Aspen, Colorado) and the footloose but not exactly fancy-free hippies of the nearby rural slum town of Puckersville. These characters find themselves trying to maneuver in a startlingly new way of living the American dream that, unbeknownst to them, would turn out to be as wispy as the powder of a dandelion puff.
A half century after its publication, Unnatural Axe seems quaint. Yet, anyone who lived through those times recognizes the baffling uncertainty these characters feel in the face of so much that is strange and unprecedented.
Huth makes fun of the Ute City movers and shakers and finds kinship with the more anarchic freedom of Puckersville. But his characters are very serious in trying to blaze new trails to happiness and fulfillment — to meaning.
In an odd way, this underlying search for meaning is even more apparent because, as a novel, Unnatural Axe (the title has no meaning that I was able to discern) is rather flat.
Huth trots out too many characters, each essentially a representative of some aspect of late 1960s society searching for something other than the suburban tract house and family. For Huth and the characters, nothing is not new — hence, the fads such as the nude pre-ski workshop and the life challenges, such as a jokey election fraud that has one of the Puckersville residents fleeing the FBI.
Yet, what the novel lacks as literature, it makes up — for the modern reader — in glimpses into the multi-faceted lifestyle-freedom movement of this moment in American life. Consider District Attorney Hamilton Haig’s vest:
In Ute City a man’s vest reflected his status and in some ways determined it, much as another man’s fate might be sealed by the cut of his golf shoes at the country-club tournament. Ham’s vest was his trademark. It was his heap-shouldered man-mountain rugged raw greatskin hunkawoolly ranch vest, with buttons of crude and primeval bone. The vest purportedly endowed him with magical powers of triple orgasm and such.
Or consider the “blond crewcut Jewish mystic,” known in Puckersville as Long Spaces:
While he was a teenager and passing from Judaism through Christianity on the way to the Orient, Long Spaces had tried to attain the Gift of the Magi. He wanted the Gift very badly, but it wasn’t granted to him. He didn’t have the faith; he had doubt. He worked to dispel the doubt, and after many months, one day while he was walking nowhere down a straight country road in Ohio, he believed that the Gift of the Magic was upon him. He stopped in the road, shut his eyes, took off the eyeglasses he had always worn, and threw them in the weeds. When he opened his eyes the landscape was in perfect focus. He had the Gift — to heal, to help.
His concept of the Gift of the Magic as some psychic power is something of his own creation, I think, although, Lord knows, it might have been something talked about back in the 1960s by would-be cognoscenti. Either way, these sentences give an insight into a kind of searcher in those years and the kind of pots-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow that were sought.
Gene Sawyer — who, in his earlier square life, worked at a major East Coast newspaper (as did Huth) — is a friend of Long Spaces, and, at one point, is driving the young man and other Puckersville-ites into Ute City. Long Spaces was in the lotus position in the seat behind the driver.
Peanut-faced mystic. Long Spaces was a veteran of the spiritual movement at a tender age. He had gone through astrology, Scientology, numerology, tarot, Eckanker, aura-balancing, Hopi prophecy, William Blake, Lao Buddhism, spirit-transference, and rebirth from the waist up. Now he was mastering the proudest discipline of all, Kundalini yoga…..he was working up to the ultimate — the blinding, all-encompassing, all-revealing burst of light — the vision of the Thousand-Petal Lotus Flower.
Gene’s hopes are much more modest. Although it’s impossible, they seem to reflect Bob Dylan’s song “Sign on the Window,” which wouldn’t be released until a year after Unnatural Axe was published:
Gene imagined a log cabin, crusty with bark, peeking out from a pine forest. Out back would be a rushing stream, where he could sit on a rock with his camera and look for the light. A woman came with the dream. They spent quiet mornings in the cabin; she worked at her loom or her potter’s wheel or her easel. She was beautiful but she’d learned better, and she was smart now. She enjoyed the same mysteries of how people got that way, and they made forays together into the big world and back. They wouldn’t need others to be happy. They had a trick, some trick, that kept their love fresh.
It will seem curious, I think, to present-day readers that Mary, an older woman who, earlier in life, had been a friend of the Beat Poets, is someone who seems to have her head on straight but, nonetheless, takes astrology seriously. She does a reading at one point in the novel, and other characters seem to take her pronouncements without irony or skepticism.
“Stacie dear, you have a very, very interesting chart…You see, dear, technically you’re an Aquarian, because that’s your sun sign. And Aquarius, you know, is the water-bearer, the sign of tranquility, the humanitarian. I am a triple Aquarian myself — Aquarius sun, Aquarius moon, Aquarius rising. My entire chart is water.
“But your chart, dear — you are an Aquarian in name only. Because, except for your sun, all your other planets, every one of them, is earth. You have an earth chart — logical, down-to-earth, practical, stolid, unimaginative — You moon represents the way other people see you. And your moon is in Capricorn. Capricorn the Goat — stubborn, plodding, unsympathetic to others —
“Well, all I’m saying is that all those heavy earth planets completely overwhelm [Stacie’s] poor little Aquarius. And it make [Stacie] a very, heh-heh, earthy woman.”
That’s a lot of belief in stars. And, as someone who’s not up on the arcania of astrology, I have no idea what it means to be “a very, heh-heh, earthy woman.”
No one in Unnatural Axe is violent or cruel or mean, but real life was about to punch Huth’s characters (and actual human beings) in the face. Readers know what’s in store — Charles Manson, AIDs, and a wealth of unexpected consequences from the decade of freedom. The characters don’t.
So, when Stacie is spending a snowy winter night in a Sierra Club cabin with Andy — a college student she’s never seen before who’s working there as the custodian for the season — the scene plays out differently for us today than it would have half a century ago.
He eventually asked her if it was cool with her own man and everything. She said, “Let’s go upstairs.”
The sleeping quarters were in a barny loft space — just a bare floor covered with foam mats. Stacie popped her sleeping bag out of the stuff-sack and unrolled it in the middle. Andy brought his over from the corner, and as luck would have it the zippers matched.
He was an eager lover, and perfectly harmless.
It seems like, oh, so long ago.
And it was.
Patrick T. Reardon