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Uncompromising, dark and a worthwhile read

bookA couple of years ago, I blundered into something called “The Bottom Dog Appalachian Writers Series.” Published in Ohio, this series is dedicated to showcasing “new Appalachian writers.”  When I looked at the list of writers and poets, I didn’t see a single name that I recognized, but since this is supposed to be works of “new blood,” I decided to start reading them. Well, a fellow named Charles Dodd White is at the top of the list with a prize-winning collection of short stories and a new novel, Lambs of Men. I read his impressive reviews and discovered that White had a short story in the prestigious North Carolina Literary Review, so I ordered his short story collection.

The first surprise came in White’s setting. “Hawkins’s Boy” and “Controlled Burn” not only take place in WNC, but both stories mention my hometown, Sylva. White’s characters appear in familiar locations like C.J. Harris Hospital, Western Carolina University and some recognizable local restaurants. White’s characters are familiar, and they move and talk like my friends and relatives. They wear Cathcart coats, smoke unfiltered Luckies and Camels, drive pick-ups and consume awesome amounts of cheap whiskey.

It is evident that Charles Dodd White has spent some time in this region. However, I found his writing to be grim and even brutal in its depiction of hapless Appalachian characters who unwittingly find themselves at odds with forces that are rendering the cultural and tradition of this region unrecognizable or meaningless. I do not consider White’s depictions to be unfair, but they are harsh and uncompromising. Reading Sinners of Sanction County is sort of like drinking moonshine straight. Undiluted and without a chaser, White’s narrative may leave the reader a little stunned and breathless.

It is all here — the tension between the natives and the “gated community” people; the guilt that troubles local carpenters and craftsmen who have been well-paid for their skills, but see the natural world slipping away in the onslaught of luxuriant homes that are embedded in the mountain tops around Cashiers, Highlands and Waynesville like “flying saucers that crashed there.” Time and time again, White’s guilt-ridden characters are forced to acknowledge that they have participated in destroying the natural world around them .... cutting the trees, building the condos, driving the wildlife into extinction.

Sinners of Sanction County resonates with poignant and brutal images that linger long after the reader has closed this book. Consider the following:

Charlie, a drunken Vietnam vet in “Confederates,” sitting in a Cherokee casino trying to parlay his disability check into his “dream of freedom;” Dayton in “A Controlled Burn,” a construction worker who bosses a team of Mexican workers, sits on a high ridge watching a fire move relentlessly toward a decaying cabin that represent all that is left of the past and his family ties; Packer and Drema in “A World of Daylight,” two survivors — he of a foreign war and she of the ruthless world of drug dealers and addiction — two lovers/killers, filled with self-loathing and regret ... sitting on a Blue Ridge Parkway overlook with a loaded gun on the seat; Hawkins in “Hawkins’s Boy,” an aging man with a dead, brain-damaged son and a deaf wife, walking the dark streets of Sylva toward a Little League ball park with a 38 snub-nose pistol in his pocket.

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In “Carrion,” a father and son troll the night-time roads around Cashiers and Highlands, looking for road kill — dead animals — deer and bear struck down by speeding cars ... but the flesh can be sold to stores in remote coves. Fueled by alcohol, the father senses that he and his son may be a kind of carrion.

Hiram Tobit in “Killers,” a young man eagerly experiences his “rites of passage” by making his first kill on a organized deer hunt. However, instead, he finds shame and guilt as he and a fellow hunter search for a gut-shot deer.

In “Winter by Heart,” Luke, a troubled young man with a hatchet, begging a seasoned hunter to cut off both of Luke’s hands. “They aren’t mine. They don’t belong to me anymore.”

I’ve been an ardent fan of those Appalachian writers who view their culture “warts and all.”  Certainly, the masters of the “bleak and grim,” the Jeremiahs who proclaim “Things are bad, and they are going to get worse” are everywhere. Cormac McCarthy, with his apocalyptic visions, has inspired a host of disciples. Writers like William Gay and Daniel Woodrell share McCarthy’s pessimism and frequently sound like Old Testament prophets who proclaim the approach of the final days. Frankly, I think they are right. However, that doesn’t mean that I totally endorse their sometimes hysterical visions. Instead, I find myself searching for some faint ray of light, even if it is weak and uncertain thing. Even McCarthy’s darkest novel, The Road ends with just such a faint, tenuous hope.

So, finally, I reluctantly conclude that Sinners of Sanction County is too dark for me. The writing represents some of the best I have encountered in southern literature, and White’s narrative voice is often lyrical. However, for me, this collection of dark tales resembles a prison cell without a window. Nothing can live in this all-consuming darkness.

I heartily recommend this collection of dark, glowing gems. Charles Dodd White is destined to do something astonishing in the future. I fervently hope that he finds a way to either light a candle or admit a moonbeam into his daunting vision.

Sinners of Sanction County by Charles Dodd White. Bottom Dog Press, 2012. 157 pages.

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