I first encountered Robert Henry’s name some 30 years ago in Lyman Draper’s account of the Battle of Kings Mountain (Oct. 7, 1780). Robert (who was either 13 or 14 years old at the time) had been wounded when a British bayonet pinned his hand to his thigh. Later, the young soldier gave a graphic description of the battle, including the manner in which the bayonet was removed from his hand and thigh (a fellow soldier simply grasped the bayonet and stomped on Robert’s hand until bayonet was removed).
I have always had a fondness for great, sprawling epics, especially if they chronicle the downfall of a family/dynasty that acquired great power and wealth only to destroy themselves through ruthless acts involving betrayal, greed and arrogance. Invariably, they build mansions, acquire awesome estates and develop a lifestyle that allowed them to move through a cosmopolitan world of wealth and privilege; yet invariably they come crashing down, destroyed by drugs, alcoholism and/or moral rot.
Let me begin by saying that this is a remarkable novel, and I suspect that it will be around for a long time as critics debate its literary significance. In fact, there are passionate debates in some of the current major literary magazines about such themes as Friedrich Nietzsche’s “the eternal return” and/or Yeats’ apocalyptic vision. This review will avoid such heavy freight.
If you remember Charles Portis’ wonderful 1968 novel, True Grit (and the subsequent Kim Darby/John Wayne film), you are likely to have a nostalgic regard for plucky Arkansas teenagers who just get up and go on when life smacks them down. Stubborn little Mattie Ross’ pursuit of her father’s killer inspired me some forty years ago, and I still get a little moral lift when I remember her. Aided only by a drunken sheriff who was frequently more of a hindrance than help, willful little Mattie persisted.
Back some 30 years ago when I still had some tenuous claim to academic respectability (I taught literature), my teaching sometimes included the study of “picaresque novels.”
Before Cormac McCarthy’s nameless father and son have ventured more than a few yards down The Road, we realize that something is terribly wrong with their world. The only sound, other than the shuffling gait of these two creatures and the father’s wracking cough, is the sound of labored breathing – an act made more difficult by the layers of cloth that obscure their faces.
“The Ruins does for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for New England beaches.”
— Stephen King
The Ruins by Scott Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 319 pages.
“Riding the range once more
Toting my old 44
Where you sleep out every night
Where the only law is right
I’m back in the saddle again.”
— Gene Autry (and others)
Ask the Dust by John Fante. Black Sparrow Press. $13 (paperback) — 165 pages.
Back in Charles Bukowski’s youth (the 1940s), he spent most of his time wandering aimlessly about the skid-row sections of Los Angles in an inebriated funk. Like many of his homeless and drunken friends, he observed the time-honored practice of avoiding rain and snow by taking up residence in the local library. However, as his cohorts snoozed in the reading room, Charles Bukowski read.
There is something about carnivals, amusement parks and shoddy summer circus operations that inspire a special kind of supernatural tale. Certainly, a reader who has read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) or Charles G. Finney’s classic work, The Circus of Doctor Lao (1935), is familiar with the carney sensation that blends expectancy and unease.
Stephen King has written more than 40 novels now — books that are classified in the “horror/thriller/fantasy genre.” King is especially adept at molding plots that incorporate one or more trendy topics (serial killers, the paranormal, pyromania, schizophrenia, child abuse, etc.)
Listen! Did you hear that? I’ve been hearing it for weeks now, the faint but steadily growing whisper of something approaching. From the east, I hear ... Dum, dummity, dum, dum! Me and my drummm ....” Heard that, didn’t you? And now, from the west ...“Three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear treeeee ...
Coronado by Dennis Lehane. William Morrow Publishers, 2006. $24.95 — 232 pages.
Well I just received a hurriedly written letter from 2006. (It was on a page torn from a Gideon Bible). She asked that I forward her belongings to an address in Music City, and that she was sorry for the “recent misunderstandings.”
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. $12.95 – 288 pages. Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. New York: Doubleday and Company. $22.95 – 292 pages.
Well, dear readers, modern pop fiction’s most famous killer, Hannibal the Cannibal, has quietly returned. For those of you who thought you had seen the last of Thomas Harris’ deadly (but cultured) gourmet murderer, brace yourselves.
As you probably know by now, we are on the verge of another “revolution in technology.” Specifically, your current DVD and CD players are about to become obsolete.
I grew up thinking that libraries had a lot in common with churches. I guess I need to explain that.
If you remember those wonderful fairy tales in which the hero acquires the aid of “helpers” in their journey to acquire some prize — usually, three or four creatures with remarkable powers — then you have the basic plot of The Stone Raft.
Coventry by Joseph Bathanti. Novello Festival Press, 2006. 261 pages.
When 30-year-old Calvin Gaddy finds himself working as a guard in Coventry Prison, he is plagued by the memory of the promise he had made to his mother: that he would never follow his father MacGregor Gaddy’s example and become a prison guard – especially since the aging, retired “Mac” had become a legend at Coventry due to his reputation for cruelty.
Robert Morgan has a rare and cunning gift: he can sift through the detritus of the past, pluck objects and images from his memory (especially his childhood) and elevate them to the point where they become — in the sense that Joseph Campbell uses the word — “numinous.”
Back in the 15th century, when Europe underwent a remarkable surge in creativity, the word “Renaissance” (meaning “rebirth”) was frequently applied to England, Germany, Italy and France where music, art, literature and the sciences were suddenly thriving.
Back in the early 1950s when Western Carolina University was still Western Carolina Teachers College, I got a crush on a feisty little co-ed named Hedy West during my sophomore year. Hedy played a banjo and sang exhilarating songs about dying miners and terrible injustices visited on people who worked in cotton mills.
Recently, a distressing bit of information surfaced on CNN about the war in Iraq. There has been a significant increase in the number of civilian rapes and murders in Iraq and Iran (and correspondingly in West Africa). New evidence indicates that many of these crimes may be the work serial killers who are using the war as a convenient camouflage.
In the small Southern community where she lives, Finch Nobles, the narrator of A Gracious Plenty, easily qualifies as a “quare woman.” Disfigured by a household accident at the age of 4 (a pot of boiling water), Finch finds that the townspeople commonly regarded her ruined face with pity or revulsion.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. William Morrow, 2007. 376 pages
Although both the publisher and the author of Heart-Shaped Box seem reluctant to admit that Joe Hill is actually the son of Stephen King, there is ample evidence to support this conclusion.
My decision to read this “docudrama” (part memoir, part history and part detective story) was prompted by my genuine wish to gain a better understanding of the history of racial conflicts and violent conformations that took place in North Carolina between the 1950s and the present.
Stephen Dobyns has written 20 novels and more than 10 volumes of poetry; however, he is difficult to “classify.” His writing is praised by big league names as varied as Francine Prose and Stephen King, but he is most famous for a “sexual harassment” charge brought against him while he was teaching at Syracuse University (allegedly, he was overheard making “salty and crude” comments at a party).
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.
They were known as the West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., three teenagers who were accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993. Their trial was marked by tampered evidence, false testimony and public hysteria. It is small wonder that it became an event so bizarre, it attracted the national media.
Recently, when I was surfing through a depressing collection of nighttime TV programs — religious rants, psychics, cooking shows and weight loss commercials — I stopped on a “true crime” channel with a provocative title: “Dangerous Women.” Before I could punch the remote, a solemn voice announced: “Tonight, a horrifying story from a remote cove in Appalachia, we bring you the story of Frankie Silver, a woman who not only murdered her husband but burned his body in the fireplace.”
Ron Rash’s latest collection of short stories echos a theme that runs through all of his works: an awareness that Appalachia is in transition, that it is becoming something else. Of course, this is a quality that is shared by all things — what the poets call “mutability” — but in this instance, the author is mindful of what our world is becoming in contrast to what it once was. Like the drowned girl in his short story by the same title, Appalachia may be undergoing a “sea change” and will emerge as “something rich and strange.” The substance may be alien, repugnant and/or fascinating.
In recent years, I have become interested in an obscure incident that occurred in Jackson County in 1882 — the accidental drowning of 19 chain gang convicts who were working on Cowee Tunnel near Dillsboro. Who were they? Where did they come from? Where are they buried? The details are sketchy, and outside of a few basic facts, most of the stories have been passed down by oral tradition.
If you are literate and moderately aware of what passes for entertainment in film, popular novels and comics, then you are acquainted with of the strange “zombie” craze that is currently dominating much of the popular arts. In recent years, the popularity of “The Walking Dead” has grown to epic proportions.
A 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.
Daniel Emerson is afraid of black people. After a chance encounter with a group of violent African American teenagers left him with a broken wrist, a chipped tooth and an abiding belief that he is going to be killed by either one of his clients or a crack addict, the young lawyer persuades Kate, his current helpmate, to sacrifice the advantages of the big city for the pastoral peace of his hometown, Leyden.
Anyone who remembers Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the Roman Polanski film that came out about a year later, then you have a handle on a spooky plot wherein two New York parents-to-be are faced with the daunting possibility that the wife may be pregnant with (and by) something that is “not of this earth.” I’m still haunted by Mia Farrow’s tortured dilemma as she stands before the crib that contains “the spawn of Satan” ... stands with a knife in her hand. Which is stronger, a mother’s love or her moral obligation to protect mankind from evil?
I have been a Dennis Lehane fan for about two decades now, and after reading classics like Mystic River, Shutter Island and the short story collection, Coronado, I can easily recognize the author’s “signature” talents: cliff-hanger chapters, passages of riveting suspense/terror and, a marvelous gift for writing introductory paragraphs that hook the reader immediately. Here is the opening of Live by Night:
Apart from the fact that this is a remarkable recording, in terms of Martha Redbone’s liquid vocals and the harmonious blend of John McEuen’s instruments (banjo, guitar, dubro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and dulcimer), the combining of music with William Blake’s “songs” is an amazing achievement.
I always thought he was guilty. Any doubts that I might have felt vanished after I read Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision. Jeffery MacDonald had murdered his wife and two daughters, stabbing and bludgeoning them to death in their apartment at Fort Bragg. I did not believe his story about the “hippies” who broke into his house at 3:30 in the morning chanting “Acid is groovy” and “Death to the Pigs.” In essence, I guess I agreed with the military police, the FBI and the Fayetteville Police Department that it sounded like an unconvincing, “copycat” version of the Manson murders some six months before (the word “Pig” written in blood was also at the murder scene).
Kind hearts, winter has come. That dire prediction that began over 4,000 pages ago with A Game of Thrones has been fulfilled. In this, the final (?) book in the Songs of Ice and Fire series, all of the bleak predictions that began with “Winter is coming,” are gradually come to pass. However, that does not mean that we will finally see justice done. Unlike the marvelous world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the good king finally comes home and the world becomes orderly and rational once more, the final chapters of A Dance With Dragons finds Westros and the Seven Kingdoms racked by war and famine. The majority of Martin’s characters appear to be lost, trapped or missing in action.
Here is a book about storytelling that strikes a responsive chord in my own heart. Not only is Mary Hamilton a gifted storyteller who is in demand throughout Appalachia (and beyond); she has built a career based on identifying and preserving the folklore of our region. She is not content to merely tell the stories — she wants you to know where the tales originated and why they are significant. In addition, she often gives you a half dozen variations of a tale and makes specific recommendations to storytellers (parents, teachers and librarians) about the subtle factors that make an audience (or a child) responsive.
Let me begin by telling you that the book title above is misleading. Gerry Spence has more then a dozen published works, but I thought that his most provocative title might get your attention. Certainly, this review will talk about BB&PPOP, but I would prefer to talk about all of this man’s remarkable books. In addition, bear with me while I tell you how I came to visit Gerry Spence’s Lawyer’s College in Debois, Wyo., last week.
Ramblin’ in Rabun is a reprint of a delightful book that was written down in Clayton, Ga., some 40 years ago. I have always been a fan of books that were compiled by some imaginative journalist who became profoundly interested in the region where he lived and decided to develop a column composed of anecdotes, jokes and vanquished history. L.P. Cross started “Ramblin’ in Rabun” back in 1937 and it continued until 1953. During that time, Cross spent his weekends prowling through Rabun County, collecting odd bits of folklore, oral history and “folksy wisdom.” The column was extremely popular, and in time people sought Cross out to share some special bit of information, such as folk remedies, ancient murders and gossip.
In 1991, 30-year veteran and master teacher John Taylor Gatto resigned immediately after being named “Teacher of the Year” in New York. A number of educators and concerned parents took note — especially after the disillusioned teacher’s reasons for resigning appeared in the Wall Street Journal, under the caption, “I Quit, I Think.”
Well, kind hearts, here we are in the fourth of a five-book series. At the risk of being accused of indulging in extravagant praise, I must begin with words like “amazing, astonishing,” and yes, even “spellbinding.” All of George R. R. Martin’s characters are still here (although some have momentarily vanished), and they are still scheming, deceiving, murdering and ... surviving.
When winter comes now, and I see those familiar pale shafts of sunlight that briefly touch the tops of the Balsams — just before total darkness settles on Rhodes Cove — I find myself remembering a trip to see my great grandmother some 60 years ago.
Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash. Picador, 2007. 230 pages
This remarkable collection of short stories has already been named one of the 15 “notable books” of 2007 by the Story Prize Committee — an award that is presented annually in recognition of the nation’s best. The top award, $20,000, is the largest literary prize in America. In announcing their selection, the contest officials stated “The Appalachian Mountains are the setting of this beautifully crafted collection that begins and ends with a fish and spans several generations in an isolated region with characters as craggy as the landscape.”
The Sweetest Sounds
The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear
Are still inside my head.
The kindest words I’ll ever know
Are waiting to be said.
— Rogers and Hart
Over the past 40 years, as my hearing has steadily declined, most of my friends became accustomed to my evasive behavior. Instead of saying, “I can’t hear you,” I developed a habit of nodding, smiling and saying, “Yes.”
I apologize. About a month ago, when I concluded my review of Clash of Kings, I noted that I would not continue reviewing all of the books in the Songs of Ice and Fire series (I believe that there are five, but then there are rumors of more). My logic was that although I found this series marvelous reading, I was spending too much time on a single author. Of course, I fully intended to keep reading the series myself since I am beginning to feel that Martin’s fantasy world is on a par with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The truth is, after finishing A Storm of Swords, I find that I have turned into a fervent disciple who is duty bound to recruit new converts and followers. You have been forewarned.