Tension-soaked novel is one of Appalachia’s best
Mark Powell’s The Dark Corner is probably the best Appalachian novel that I have read in the last decade. It is also the most disturbing. In this, his third novel, Powell captures both the natural beauty of northwestern South Carolina and the seething violence and paranoia that lurks beneath the surface. This is a region where the interests of environmental groups, real estate developers, the federal government and right-wing extremists collide. The result is volatile and unstable, as homemade nitroglycerine.
At the heart of this novel is the Walker family: a collection of haunted and guilt-ridden souls who resemble terminal invalids, each trapped in a personal purgatory. Elijah Walker, the patriarch has retreated to a little shack where he spends the day watching a flickering black and white TV, feeding his beagles and peering at the ridge tops, which are occasionally filled with invading Vietcong. The real world and the surreal past have merged and Elijah is haunted by Vietnam and his wife’s death in an automobile accident. Alienated from his sons and the modern world, he appears to have his back to the wall, watching his approaching death with resignation.
Malcomb, Elijah’s younger son is an ex-Episcopal priest and a failed suicide (he drank a gallon of antifreeze). He is also haunted by specters from Iraq, including a mutilated child that accompanies him as he travels aimlessly through his old haunts in Seneca, Walhalla and his brother’s resort property on Lake Keowee. A reformed alcoholic, he is poor company for his hard-drinking brother; however, he finds a kind of temporary peace with Jordan, a drug addict who is as psychically damaged as he is. Like many of the characters in this novel, Malcomb and Jordan are constantly searching for God through drugs, meditation ... a peace that eludes them.
Dallas Walker, Elijah’s older son, is Powell’s most fully realized creation. “Too young for Vietnam and too old for Iraq,” Dallas broods over his “missed opportunities.” A one-time college football star and a highly successful real estate developer with a trophy wife who shares her husband’s obsession with physical fitness (she does twelve miles on the treadmill each morning), Randi has undertaken the daunting job of keeping Dallas up and running. Over-medicated and existing on a steady diet of Ripped Fuel, percocet, OxyContin and Johnnie Walker, Dallas seems to be preparing for some portentous event which is now at hand. Using his wealth and contacts, Dallas has become involved with extremist militia groups (The Tree of Liberty) and right-wing politicians; he waits for his “opportunity.” Like his father and younger brother, he is determined to experience his own war.
Then, there is Elijah’s brother, Uncle Tillman. Overweight and simple, Tillman is the family outcast. No longer capable of dressing himself and bathing, Tillman sits in his own excrement, texting religious messages to his relatives. While his internet-acquired wife fornicates with Mexican workers in the next room, Tillman holds forth like Jeremiah and Job. (“Ye have made of my heritage, an abomination.”) Tillman is a source of shame to the Walker family, especially Dallas.
The supporting cast in this dark and tension-soaked tale includes Dr. Leighton Clatter, who may be the nearest thing to an earth-bound demon in The Dark Corner. Corrupt and wealthy, Clatter controls everything from illegal firearms and Atlanta-based drug traffic to prostitution and all of it is flowing into northwestern South Carolina like a polluted river. Clatter’s eager minions include corrupt government officials, right-wing activists, America First advocates, turncoat FBI agents and a smattering of organized crime (Powell includes a marvelous old southern politician and ex-presidential candidate named Chellis, who still dreams of resurrecting “old South values.”). Clatter manipulates everything as though he is playing chess ... but his motives are uncertain since he seems to have moved beyond mere greed and a lust for power. Clatter seems to be “unmotivated evil,” perverse and whimsical.
Literature has come a long way since James Dickey’s Deliverance, yet here we are, once more probing the darkness beneath the natural world, like the “sea change” in Ron Rash’s short story, “Something Rich and Strange.”
Like Dickey and Rash, Mark Powell knows that more is at stake than a culture clash between traditional values and “Nu South” progress. From the “adventure-turned-nightmare” trip down the Chattooga in Deliverance, we have progressed to the beachfront cathedral-like summer homes and luxury pontoons that now troll those same waters. Those four adventurers who rafted down a doomed river are now among the privileged and over-medicated residents of Lake Keowee. They are dozing on the decks of their trophy homes. The dark waters of these “tamed” rivers appear serene, but Mark Powell suggests that this becalmed state is deceptive. It has something to do with the “protean nature” of water ... the ability to change into something radically different.