Saturday, July 15, 2006
Joe Anthony has crafted an engaging tale of Appalachia. A transplant, Anthony writes with an insider's knowledge and an outsider's perspective an unusual and effective aesthetic.
His main character, Linda Eliot, also a transplant, teaches at the community college in the coal-mining town of Peril, Ky., which is aptly named. Tarpless coal trucks scream around the hairpin mountain roads. Neighbors tote shotguns. Students write nasty evaluations. Menace thrives like dark particulates in the very air.
Why, Linda asks one day in class, do so many people get killed in Peril? It seems almost like a rhetorical question. But one of her students, Hugh, an older boy who's been in the Navy, offers an answer: "Do your drinking in the wrong bars. Get born into the wrong families. You do either and the odds of getting shot go up a whole lot. Do your drinking at home, be born right and you'll liable [sic] to live to a long old age, even in Peril."
Hugh is also her most promising student, somewhat in spite of himself. He likes to play the good ol' boy. But Linda recognizes his talent for writing. In a clever strategy, the author presents many of Hugh's compositions for English class, and they shed light on his opinions about the hardscrabble life in the hollows.
Linda and Hugh are on a dark trajectory, which will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say, the reader is made to care about both of these characters, albeit in somewhat different ways.
The minor characters here tend to be rather one-dimensional. And some of the action is too flatly issues-driven. That is, the novel sometimes seems to be in service to ideas, when -- since this is art -- ideas should be in service to the novel.
But the writing is spirited and compelling, and the author brings a
unique perspective to Appalachian culture.