A dark world explored by a gifted writer
In case you haven’t noticed, let me call your attention to a disturbing fact regarding current Appalachian literature: some critics have been describing the new crop of Appalachian writers as latter-day Jeremiads who are predicting the coming of a kind of literary apocalypse in Appalachia. Lately, I have been running into references to “Appalachian noir,” a classification that is certainly valid given the current trend toward dark humor and the absence of traditional themes.
I have now read six new novels, and all of them exhibited the characteristics that I normally associate with tense and suspenseful detective fiction. In all of them, the natural world has been eclipsed by a kind of moral rot. The tone or ambience seems to be growing darker, and there is a pervasive atmosphere of menace. Well, even so, one thing is certain. Kirby Gann may be the most gifted writer in the pack.
Ghosting has nothing to do with the supernatural, but this novel is filled with surreal landscapes and ghostly settings. Gann has a talent for evoking an Appalachia that is ossified — a relic of the past. For example, the center of Kentucky’s thriving drug culture is in locations that are the “leftover” relics of the past. Now, they merely serve as a backdrop for a world filled with drugs, violent death and moral corruption.
The abandoned Saint Jerome seminary comes alive each night as its halls are filled with the barking of guard dogs; major drug deals go down in a facility where students once attended classes on Christian ethics. The night is filled with the sounds of speeding cars and mirthless laughter and shouts. The silent fields surrounding the seminary are filled with junkyard vehicles: old tractors and farm equipment.
Perhaps the most bizarre location in this novel is an abandoned rock quarry that has been converted into a kind of entertainment center for teenagers and students from a nearby college. The roads and the labyrinthian pools of the quarry are packed with drug customers who can order from an awesome menu. Out on the Interstate, vans owned by Brother Gil Ponder, Pastor of Christ the World Emergent Ministries (each loaded with athletic equipment like basketballs and volleyballs) race through the night towards Birmingham or Louisville, freighted with a fortune in cocaine and marijuana — all beneath a moon that resembles a huge spotlight.
Ponder is an old drug addict who operates a mega-church and is a “major player” in the Kentucky’s thriving drug industry. It is chilling to read Ponder’s monologues that reveal his astonishing gift for self-deception. Ponder sees no conflict between orchestrating the execution of a fellow drug-dealer and doing “God’s work.” How unreal can the world become?
Ghosting contains some of the most repulsive and murderous characters in modern Southern fiction. At the heart of this collection, like a diseased spider, sits Lawrence Greuel, an obese, dying man who is haunted by the death of his wife. He is heir to a half-dozen painful afflictions, yet he controls a massive drug operation. Virtually immobile, he is dependent on others to carry out his distribution. Since Greuel is paranoid, suspecting betrayal from everyone, he has only one brutal punishment for maverick employees: torture and execution (the torture is a given).
One of Greuel’s henchmen is a man named Arley Noe (Greuel calls him “blue boy” and notes that he moves “with a smooth and strange gait” and enjoys any opportunity to use his exotic collections of hammers, drills and tin snips). Greuel seems to attract the malformed and psychotic, and his coterie includes his own son, Spunk, who has an oversized tongue and drools.
Much of this novel concerns the search for Fleece Skaggs, who has become an essential part of Greuel’s drug operation. He is missing, and Greuel senses that he has been betrayed by a young man that he had trusted. Fleece’s half-brother, James Cole Prather, who has a “wayward eye which wanders to the left” and a crooked leg that hampers his ability to walk, becomes obsessed with Fleece’s disappearance and goes to work for Greuel in the hope of learning the truth about his half-brother’s fate. Among those who suspect that Fleece has probably stolen a large shipment of drugs and is either dead or living in Las Vegas is Fleece’s mother, a woman willing to do anything to feed her own drug addiction, including involvement in the murder of her own husband.
Then, there is Shady, Fleece’s girlfriend, who is the daughter of a wealthy family and is fascinated by the lifestyle of the drug addicts in the local college, she manages to enjoy all of the advantages of the drug culture with none of the negative effects. Her relationship with James Cole is mostly self-serving since he is a ready source of drugs.
Of all the characters in this novel, the only one that has a “moral compass” is James Cole. He, alone, arouses the reader’s sympathy, yet he moves with a kind of predestined certainty to his own destruction.
His nightmarish journey to pick up a shipment of drugs from Greuel’s major suppliers takes him deep into a purgatory inhabited by sinister workers who regard him with hostility. His return with Greuel’s new shipment of drugs forces him to make a decision about his role in this dark drama. Finally, James Cole must turn to those whom he trusts: his mother, his lover and his minister. James Cole’s tragedy is the result of his willingness to trust the people who will certainly betray him.
Despite the darkness of Ghosting, much of the writing is lyrical and moves with a grace that is rare in literature today. When the book is completed, many readers may be tempted to revisit passages that read like chapters in the Old Testament: laments for things lost.