The Line That Held Us, by David Joy****

thelinethatheldusDarl Moody and Calvin Hooper have been best friends forever, and so when Darl has the worst kind of accident, he knows who to turn to. You know what they say real friends will help you bury. The body in question is Carol Brewer; Darl was hunting out of season, and when he glimpsed something moving through the woods he thought it was a wild pig. Turned out he was wrong; turned out to be Carol, poaching ginseng on Coon Coward’s land. But you can’t bring the dead back to life, and you sure can’t call the cops for something like this. Carol is Dwayne’s brother, after all. Dwayne is a huge man, half- crazy and rattlesnake mean. There are no bygones in Dwayne Brewer’s world. There is only revenge.

My thanks go to G.P. Putnam and Net Galley for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

“I’d be lucky if all he did was come after me,” Darl said, “But knowing him, knowing everything he’s done, you and me both know it wouldn’t end there. I bet he’d come after my mama and my little sister and my niece and nephews and anybody else he could get his hands on. That son of a bitch is crazy enough to dig up my daddy’s bones just to set him on fire.”

“[Calvin tells him] “You’re talking crazy, Darl.

“Am I?”

So Carol disappears…for awhile. But Dwayne won’t be satisfied till he knows what has happened to his brother, who is all the family he has left. Once he finds out, of course all hell breaks loose.
Joy is a champion at building visceral characters and using setting to develop them further. I know of no living writer better at describing hard core rural poverty to rival anything the Third World can offer:

“The house had been built a room at a time from scrap wood salvaged and stolen. Nothing here was permanent and as each addition rotted away, a new one was hammered together from plywood and bent nails off another side so that slowly through the decades, the five-room shanty shifted around the property like a droplet of water following the path of least resistance. Red Brewer was no carpenter. Chicken coops were built better. So were doghouses. But this place had been the roof over their heads and had kept the rain off the Brewer clan’s backs all Dwayne’s miserable life.”

The murderous rage of Dwayne Brewer contrasts with the tender, poignant love that exists between Calvin and his girlfriend Angie, who has just learned she is pregnant. Calvin understands throughout all of this that he has a lot to lose, and this makes the conflict between Dwayne and Calvin a more unequal one.

I would have liked to see Angie better developed, and I blanched a bit at the line where she thinks that the only important thing is what’s growing in her uterus. But the story isn’t really about Angie, and I have seen Joy develop a strong female character in one of his earlier books. I hope to see more of that in his future work.

Meanwhile, the passage where Dwayne visits Coon Coward—some four or five pages long—just about knocks me over. This is what great writing looks like.

I struggled a bit with the ending, and this is where the fifth star comes off. The first 96 percent of this tale is flat-out brilliant, but I feel as if Joy pulls the ending a bit, and I can’t see why. None of the rest of the book points us toward this conclusion.

Last, the reader should know that there is a great deal of truly grisly material here. We have a torture scene; we have numerous encounters with a decaying corpse. If you are a person that does most of your reading during mealtime, this might not be the best choice.

For those that love excellent literary fiction or Southern fiction, this story is recommended. It will be released August 14, 2018, but you can pre-order it now.

Ohio, by Stephen Markley*****

OhioMarkley’s thunderous debut is not to be missed. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early, but this is one of the rare times I can say that if I’d paid full hardcover price, it would have been worth it. This is the summer’s best fiction, and it’s available to the public August 21, 2018.

Our story is broken into a prelude and four additional parts, each assigned to a different protagonist, all of whom knew one another, traveling separately from four different directions; they were born during the great recession of the 1980s and graduated from New Canaan High in 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. We open with the funeral parade held for Rick Brinklan, the former football star killed in Iraq. His coffin is rented from Walmart and he isn’t in it; wind tears the flag off it and sends it out of reach to snag in the trees. The mood is set: each has returned to their tiny, depressed home town, New Canaan, Ohio, for a different purpose. The town and its population has been devastated economically by the failure of the auto industry:

“New Canaan had this look, like a magazine after it’s tossed on the fire, the way the pages blacken and curl as they begin to burn, but just before the flames take over.”

At the mention of football, I groan inwardly, fearing stereotypes of jocks and cheerleaders, but that’s not what happens here. Every character is developed so completely that I feel I would know them on the street; despite the similarity in age and ethnicity among nearly all of them, there is never a moment when I mix them up. And the characters that are remembered by all but are not present are as central to the story as those that are. As in life, there is no character that is completely lovable or benign; yet almost everyone is capable of some goodness and has worthwhile goals.

Families recall the closure of an industrial plant with the same gravity with which one would remember the death of a beloved family member; the loss has been life changing. Residents are reduced to jobs in retail sales and fast food, welfare, the drug trade, and military service due not to legal compulsion, but economic necessity. Everyone has suffered; Walmart alone has grown fatter and richer.

This is an epic story that has it all. We see the slide experienced by many of New Canaan’s own since their idealistic, spirited teenaged selves emerged from high school to a world less welcoming than they anticipated. One of the most poignant moments is an understated one in which Kaylyn dreams of going away to school in Toledo. This reviewer lived in Toledo during the time when these youngsters would have been born, and I am nearly undone by the notion that this place is the focus of one girl’s hopes and dreams, the goal she longs for so achingly that she is almost afraid to think of it lest it be snatched away.

Because much of each character’s internal monologue reaches back to adolescence, we revisit their high school years, but some of one person’s fondest recollections are later brought back in another character’s reminiscence as disappointing, even nightmarish. The tale is haunting in places, hilarious in others, but there is never a moment where the teen angst of the past is permitted to become a soap opera.

Side characters add to the book’s appeal. I love the way academics and teachers are depicted here. There’s also a bizarre yet strangely satisfying bar scene unlike any other.

Those in search of feel-good stories are out of luck here, but those that treasure sterling literary fiction need look no further. Markley has created a masterpiece, and I look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us.

Brass, by Xhenet Aliu*****

“I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

Brass Waterbury, Connecticut is the place to go for immigrants, the Brass Manufacturing Capital of the World; that’s true, anyway, until the plant closes. Elsie Kuzavinas waits tables at a Greek restaurant while her mother slaves over the assembly line at the Peter Paul Almond Joy Mounds factory nearby.

Elsie tells us that “My mother had warned me when I took the job to watch out for the Albanians that worked at the Ross, because she heard they treated their women like sacks and that their tempers ran hotter than the deep fryers in the kitchen.”  Nevertheless, she falls for the line cook, Bashkim hard and fast.  When he offers to take her home one night and then deliberately points his Pontiac Fiero the wrong way, she falls silently complicit, because even if he turns out to be a serial killer, she would be “happier to have died Bashkim’s victim than his nothing-at-all.”  Elsie knows that Bashkim had left a wife behind, but they don’t talk about it.

That’s just one of Bashkim’s rules. Nobody is allowed to talk about Bashkim’s wife.

In fact, Bashkim is a humdinger, and seeing Elsie’s slow transition from battered mistress to—not a crusader by any means, but a woman that has a bottom line involving basic safety and minimal security—is bound to make readers sit up straight and pay attention. And when an apologetic relative tells a bruised Elsie that Bashkim didn’t mean to hurt her, I want to cheer when Elsie says, “Of course he did. That’s what fists do.”

Elsie’s story is told alternately with that of the daughter she begets with Bashkim. Lulu is her mother’s daughter, a reckless girl who’s got little to lose. Their stories are presented in a bold, original second person narrative that is unforgettable.

By now I am supposed to have told you that I read this book free thanks to Net Galley and Random House in exchange for this honest review. But when a debut like this one comes along, the superlatives come first, the disclaimers second.  Aliu has positioned herself on the literary map, and I dare anyone to try to knock her aside.

Lulu didn’t get the college scholarship she had worked toward; all her hopes and dreams were riding on it. She needs more than an education, she needs to get out of the house. In desperation, Lulu sets out to meet her daddy, convinced that if he can actually see her, he will make everything right for her. Ahmet, a fickle, sweet boy that adores her, agrees to drive her to Texas. Lulu’s journeys, both outward and inward, kept me from thumbing off my reader when midnight came. The inward journey joining Lulu and Elsie is hypnotic.

This story is available to the public January 23, 2018. It’s badass working class fiction. Every feminist, every mother, every daughter, and everyone that loves excellent fiction should get a copy of this book and read it.

Because for all of us, it is better to be Aliu’s readers than her nothing-at-all.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*****

Oh hell yes. Congratulations to Jesmyn Ward for making the long list of the #NationalBookAward for 2017.

Seattle Book Mama

SingUnburiedI had never read Ward’s work before, and now that I have I will follow her anywhere. Sing Unburied, Sing is a literary masterpiece, and one that fits the time in which we live. It opens up all sorts of thorny questions for examination, but like most thorns, it stings. I received my copy free and early courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley. This title is available to the public now.

Jojo and Kayla have been raised by their grandparents in rural Mississippi; Mam and Pop are their source of love and stability. Leonie, the mother they call by her first name as if she were a sister, drifts in and out, using copious amounts of meth and other drugs. Michael, the children’s Caucasian father, is being released from Parchman, the notorious prison where he has been sent after having killed Leonie’s brother, Given. Given comes to her when she’s…

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If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s narrative.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate**

beforewewereyoursLisa Wingate is an established author, but she is new to me. I received this DRC free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it is available to the public Tuesday, June 6, 2017. And although I would love to tell you to run out and buy it right now, in all honesty I have never felt quite so ambivalent about a novel, at least not in recent years. There’s so much that’s good here, but there’s also some terrible material—albeit brief—that any sensible editor would have to question, and that every reviewer that’s paying attention has to notice.

We have two protagonists, both female. Our first is Rill Foss, the member of a large, poor family that lives on a riverboat. She and her siblings are scooped up by the authorities when they are left without an adult present while their mother is rushed to the hospital after complications in childbirth. After a harrowing sojourn at the Tennessee Children’s Home, she and a sister are adopted into a well-to-do, politically connected family, and she becomes May Weathers; yet Rill is still determined to return home to the Arcadia, the boat on which she was raised, where she knows her true parents will be waiting.

Our second protagonist is Avery Stafford, the beloved daughter of a senator that is grooming her to succeed him. All of her life, Avery has known she must consider every decision she makes with the assumption that the public will learn of it. But when she learns of a mystery that might affect the final years of her beloved Grandma Judy, who is in the early stages of dementia and living in assisted care, she follows the threads—carefully, discreetly—in order to learn more about her grandmother and in the process, about herself.

“Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me?”

The prose is woven in a way that is fresh and delightful in most regards, and I admire the organization of the story as a whole, which is masterfully done. Ultimately, we see where May’s story and Avery’s meet, and although we are given a glimpse of how some aspects of the story will resolve, others are a wonderful surprise. The dialogue between Avery and Trent, a man that assists her in her inquiries, absolutely crackles. The characterization of Trent’s three-year-old son, Jonah, gets my vote as the most adorable tot to ever grace fiction.

There are two areas that hold this story back from a five-star rave here. The first and smaller concern is the depiction of the orphanage to which Rill and her siblings are taken. Wingate tells us in her end notes—which I read first, and you should, too—that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was real, and that poor children were in fact routinely kidnapped and adopted, for high fees, to affluent families almost as if they were livestock; “Christmas babies” were publicly advertised, especially blond ones. The point is well taken, and Riggs is a well-drawn villain. However, the passages set in this place are so horrible and so harsh that in some ways, it’s almost a caricature. I found myself skimming passages here because I just couldn’t stand it. If I had my way, there would either be a wee bit more ambiguity here, or the section would be shorter. Sometimes less is more.

The other, larger concern here is the cultural deafness in the terms used. Even if racist terms were common among Caucasians of the time in question, finding them gratuitously tossed into this novel, not because they are key to the plot but merely as set dressing, is like finding a rattlesnake in my lunchbox. Why would anyone do this? I refer to the slur on a Chinese man that appears briefly and is not important to the plot; the mammy-like dialect written in for the African-American servant, which appears numerous times; the reference to American Indians of the north as ‘Eskimos’, the offhand references to slave cabins and ‘Confederate’ roses, and most particularly the place in which one of the children threatens a Black woman they think may steal from them by telling her:

“They’ll hang you up in a tree, they will.”

My god. A threat of lynching, just tossed in for flavor!

By the end of the galley, I was in love with the story and its main characters, and I initially rated this book four stars, but in going back over my notes, I realized that as long as the lynching reference remains in the text, I can’t go there, and I can’t do that. And I wonder—why in the world is it used at all? All it does is demonstrate how tough the children are, that they can chase away an adult that might mean them harm. Wingate could have done this dozens of other ways, and yet she chose this one.

So there you have it; it’s a brilliantly crafted story with significant social miscues that threaten to derail all that is done well here. Take your pick; read it or don’t. My own advice is that if you want to go there, get it free or at a discount. I cannot see rewarding a work that contains overt racism that is tossed in to no good purpose, and it’s a crying shame, because otherwise it’s a compelling tale by a master word-smith.

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout*****

anythingispossibleStrout is a writer of enormous talent and the owner of a Pulitzer. Here she builds on the characters she introduced in 2016 with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is back, along with various relations and everyday people. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House, for the purpose of generating an honest review. This title will be sold April 25, 2017, and those that love strong literary fiction won’t want to miss it.

Lucy has become a successful writer, and she has left behind her early life of extreme poverty and the people she spent it with. They’re still there, and some of them are bitter. Strout crafts each character in a series of consecutive short stories that build on one another, and although most of the people she features here are not ones you might want to spend time with if they were real, she designs them with so many layers and with so much nuance that it’s hard to remember they aren’t. We revisit the Pretty Nicely girls, and Lucy comes home for a visit. But facing the demons of the past, those that her siblings still speak about freely but that she has kept carefully compartmentalized in an emotional deep freeze is too much for her, and she has to leave earlier than she had planned.

One thing I appreciate about Strout’s writing is her affection for the working class and the down-and-out. Some of her characters have been kept from success by hard luck, and others by lack of talent, but they are still people, and they’re sometimes capable of more care and greater compassion than other folks that haven’t ever suffered. Strout develops these characters like nobody’s business, and you almost don’t need a plot, because the people themselves are the whole story. I like the chapter that features the Hit Thumb Theory, and the ramification of privilege it conveys.

Strout writes with an implied intimacy that is rarely found. Sometimes I feel as if I have entered in the middle of a conversation, and there’s a shorthand among the family members present that I have to watch for carefully before I understand what’s happening between them. Most writers don’t even attempt this kind of subtlety because it’s so difficult to achieve. In someone else’s hands, the reader might come away wondering just what that whole thing was about, but here I find myself leaning in, absorbing details carefully meted out with great discipline and flawless pacing.

If you’ve read this author’s work and liked it, you can be assured you will like this as well. If not, be aware that it isn’t warm and fuzzy writing; don’t take it to the beach. Rather, the joy comes from witnessing the way she draws her characters and their lives without trying to put a shine on them, leaving them as stark and real as human beings often are.

I highly recommend this book to those that enjoy brilliantly written fiction, and to teachers of creative writing.

The Weight of this World, by David Joy*****

theweightoftheworldDavid Joy is a writer that keeps it real, and that’s what made me lurch forward in my desk chair and grab my mouse when I saw his second novel was done.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This title will be available to the public March 7, 2017. Those that cherish strong fiction should buy it and read it.

The setting is Little Canada, North Carolina, a wide place in the road in the middle of nowhere. The family unit, such as it is, consists of April—the most unwilling of mothers—along with her son Thad, and his best friend, Aiden McCall, who shares the trailer at the rear of April’s property with Thad. The plot is centered on the inadvertent death of the local meth dealer, and a small fortune that is unexpectedly left in the custody of Thad and Aiden.

They are not stellar decision makers.  In fact, some of the time they seem as if they are half feral.

Aiden came to live with Thad when he was on the run from the law, young and desperate. Thad offered him shelter, and that was more than anyone else had ever done. In fact,

 

“Nothing about this place had changed in all of Aiden McCall’s life, and maybe that’s why he’d come to hate it so badly. Everything was exactly as it had always been, the haves having and the have-nots starving to damn death.”

 

Thad, unfortunately, is the last person in this world anyone should become overly attached to. Between his unloving childhood, his time in Afghanistan and the meth he’s used to self-medicate since then, he’s more than half crazy more than half the time. It’s just him, Aiden and his dog, a crossbreed named Loretta Lynn. But things get out of hand, and the bits of baling wire and rusty screws that were barely holding his poor savaged brain together come undone:

 

“Something broke inside him then. His mind retreated to a place more familiar. There was a sergeant who told Thad the infantry were the hands of God, and that idea made sense to Thad because it was no different from what he had heard all his life growing up in church. The old-timers said some prayers needed feet. But there was evil in this world that had to be strangled. And so it wasn’t just a matter of giving those prayers legs. Sometimes a prayer needed hands just the same.”

 

As you can see, it’s gritty prose, and it features hardscrabble characters that are not entirely lovable. And so, reader, if you are one that needs a character you can fall in love with, you may have to look elsewhere. Some reviewers have found the story too harsh for their liking, and so to some degree it’s a matter of taste.

But I can tell you this: the settings here are stark and immediate, and the characters are well drawn and completely believable. I appreciate a story that fits the time in which we live, one in which young people have a rough time becoming independent due to economic woes and  the rampant drug addiction that seems to live in the shadow of every economic downturn. I believe Aiden and Thad, and I believe Thad’s mother April as well, a woman that only became a mother because someone spit on her as she came out of an abortion clinic. This is a story that resonates, and nobody can tell it like David Joy does.

Highly recommended!

Best of 2016: Nonfiction

I didn’t have to think twice about this one. This category includes any nonfiction published for the first time this year except for biographies and memoirs, which have their own category on this site. If you haven’t read this one, you should. It’s not only important, but oddly fascinating.