In the hamlet of Allagash, Maine (pop. 448), the resident loggers, potato farmers, river guides and poachers know the meaning of the local expression: “You can’t get there from here.” This is the end of the road. To the north is the Canadian border; to the south are dense woodlands spotted with tiny towns where gossip and sex are major diversions. Until a brash native named Cathie Pelletier, 33, decided to make her neighbors and kinfolk the subject of her first novel, The Funeral Makers (Macmillan $16.95), there was little reason why Allagash would ever be more than a dot on the map.
Now, however, the peccadilloes of the inbred, undereducated and oversexed residents of Mattagash (a thinly disguised version of Allagash) are delighting readers everywhere. Reviewers inevitably have compared Pelletier with Carolyn Chute, whose highly acclaimed 1985 novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine also focused on the poverty and insular life in rural Maine. Bud Yorkin (producer-director of the film Twice in a Lifetime) has bought the movie rights to The Funeral Makers for a reported $250,000.
The Funeral Makers is a morbidly funny tale of the McKinnon clan, founders of Mattagash, who bear a striking resemblance to Pelletier’s own ancestors in Allagash. Marge, the spinster McKinnon, contracts beriberi after living on rice and tea for 30 years. As her two sisters, Sicily and Pearl, hold a bedside vigil, Pearl’s undertaker husband and son eagerly plot the funeral. Meanwhile Chester Lee Gifford, the scurvy scion of Mattagash’s outlaw family, seduces Sicily’s pubescent daughter Amy Joy—and Sicily too.
Pelletier spent this past summer at the University of Maine campus in Fort Kent 25 miles from Allagash. Pelletier and her novel received mixed reviews in her hometown. Cathie ran into people she’d known all her life who refused to meet her eye. The local paper published a letter virtually accusing Pelletier of conducting an Allagash smear campaign. Conceding that “there are people in my town who say I made fun of them,” Pelletier asks, “How can they say that? I represent them. I love this town.”
The author, who manages to be both humorous and compassionate about small town life, is the sixth and last child of a French Canadian lumber contractor and his Irish wife. Cathie skipped two years of school and by 13 was reciting entire acts from Shakespeare. Her achievements set her apart from other kids in town and so did the “silly” and sometimes loud clothes she says were an outlet for her creativity. At 17, Pelletier was expelled from the University of Maine for breaking curfew and setting off a false fire alarm and then embarked upon a 10,000-mile hitchhiking jaunt across America. She eventually returned to the University of Maine and graduated. Intrigued with the idea of becoming a songwriter, she headed to Nashville, where she rented an apartment from a family of undertakers outside the city. “They were crazy as loons,” reports Pelletier, who stored away material that would later appear in her novel.
In Nashville Pelletier met and moved in with country-music star Jim Glaser, 48, and the two have coexisted tempestuously for the past 10 years. “Friends call us F. Scott and Zelda,” says Pelletier. “We’re both so strong-minded and independent.” Marriage, she feels, is unlikely and so are children. “I had a poodle once,” she says, “and I used to leave parties all the time to check on the dog. I think I would take motherhood too seriously.”
Pelletier has long been nurturing a writing career she began at age 10. In 1976 she published a volume of poetry with a small press, but she was frustrated by her lack of readers. Pelletier began The Funeral Makers in 1981 during a period in which she and Glaser were split up. “I write best when I’m unhappy,” she explains. The novel took only a few months to write, but, says Cathie with feeling: “It took me years to live that damn book!”
Pelletier is already more than halfway through her next novel, The Bubble Reputation, which is about a 33-year-old woman writer. Then she’ll start on The Wedding Makers, the second volume of what she envisions as a trilogy about the McKinnons.
With her newfound success as a writer, Pelletier may not be popular in Allagash, but she is in Nashville. “This is still a town embarrassed by country music,” says Jim Glaser. “There’s a society side of Nashville that’s going to love Cathie to death.” Pelletier, however, is determined to remain relatively unspoiled. When her movie money comes in, she says she’ll buy herself a pizza. “But I’ll send out for it,” she figures, “instead of picking it up myself.”