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Collective guilt permeates novel’s characters

bookA little over one year ago, Mark Powell published The Dark Corner, a novel that was set in the northwest part of Georgia and dealt with the intrigue and corruption attending the current development of “the river culture” that has sprung up along the Chattooga River. It is a remarkable novel (that reads like a sequel to James Dickey’s Deliverance) and prompted author Ron Rash to call Powell “the best Appalachian novelist of his generation.”

As the awards and accolades rolled in, there was considerable speculation about Powell’s future work. Many of the critics assumed that Powell would continue to plumb the corrupted waters and the darkness attending the overly-medicated residents of Lake Keowee.

Ah, but no! The new novel, The Sheltering (with a forward by Pat Conroy) is out and the critics (as well as this bewildered reviewer) are nervously qualifying their expectations. Powell has abandoned Appalachia (at least for the present) and expanded his scope to coast to coast with emphasis on Iraq, Afghanistan, Florida and the Midwest. At times, Powell’s point of view rises to 10,000 feet where a Reaper drone hovers.

That is where one of the protagonists — Luther Redding — sits like God with his finger on a button. Luther can instantly annihilate a target (a man named Kareem Saman) a thousand miles away and be home in time for dinner. It is a terrifying image.

Part of Powell’s purpose is to discuss the consequences of that power. What are the consequences of being God? Of hovering above the earth like Divine Vengeance? At first, Luther Redding seems to be among the blessed on this earth. He has a wife, Pamela, and two daughters. The Reddings have grown rich due to the real estate boom in Florida. For a short time, Luther is a millionaire, but one of his discoveries is the whimsical nature of wealth. His daughters, Lucy and Katie, are intelligent and talented ... but Katie has been cutting herself (symmetrical little scars on her arms) and Lucy is obsessed with religion .... and everyone seems to be guilt-ridden. Why? Is it a “collective guilt” — the kind that can be experienced by an entire nation? Perhaps Lucy says it best when she notes that everything that is happening to America seems to be happening to her family. What Luther does in the Reaper drone (rendering destruction in a blinding flash of light) seems to be reflected in the collapse of his marriage.

But then, Luther Redding vanishes from the story — like the drone, he seems to be hovering somewhere nearby — and the reader is suddenly with two brothers who are both veterans and  survivors of a nightmarish experiences. 

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Bobbie Rosen has been in Iraq and returns home to a broken marriage. He is also guilty of what can only be a “wartime atrocity” that will haunt him for the rest of his life (the death of a child which seems to be reflected in his own family). Donny, Bobbie’s brother, is “unstable” and a drug addict, and when Bobbie returns home, he finds his brother in prison. Reunited, the two brothers set out on an ill-fated drug run. Like Lucy Redding, Donnie Rosen senses that they are the victims of terrorism. “The war’s seeped into the ground water,” he says. “It is in our DNA.”

Although there is no discernible link between the Redding daughters, Lucy and Katie and the Rosen brothers, Bobbie and Donnie, their lives seem to be linked. Located in different geographic areas, they move toward some kind of convergence. To what end? At times, this “coming together” seems “destined.” In other words, nothing can stop it, but it may be meaningless.

Some of the critical comments regarding The Sheltering identify this novel’s genre as “thriller,” which, as a literary characteristic, is normally associated with crime or detective fiction. However, this may be an apt term since The Sheltering definitely has a menacing atmosphere, a kind of foreboding that increases toward the end of the novel.

For me, the most tragic character in the book is Luther Redding and in the end, it is his “humanity” renders him a victim. Is that the message of The Sheltering? Are we a nation and a culture that is doomed because of our innate ability to feel guilt? If we were more indifferent to the cruelty that we inflict on others, would we be more deserving of survival?

Although The Sheltering is a fast-paced, scary ride into a dark tunnel, I am hoping that Mark Powell will emerge from this journey prepared to come home to north Georgia, ready to chronicle the noble and tragic folk who need his help in making their lives meaningful in a world full of invisible drones.

The Sheltering by Mark Powell. The University of South Carolina Press, 2014. 303 pages.

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