And only man is vile…
😀 😀 😀 🙂
In a small Appalachian town where natural beauty and the ugliness of the meths business clash, Sheriff Les Clary is preparing for retirement. He has bought himself some land and is having a cabin built on it, where he can leave the ugliness behind and spend his days painting the beauty. But before he leaves, he’ll have to deal with one last case. On the surface it’s not a particularly serious case – a matter of deliberate pollution of a river – but the motivations behind it will take him deep into the darkness that scars this community, and rake up some of the traumatic moments of his life, both professional and personal.
Les’ friend, Becky Shytle, is also a survivor of trauma (as, quite frankly, is everyone in the book). In Becky’s case, she was caught up in a school shooting as a young child, in which her beloved teacher died – an outcome for which she blames herself. After the shooting, she was mute for months, and eventually her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents in the Appalachians. Here she learned the healing power of nature and found her voice again, though that early trauma and a later one still haunt her.
The book alternates between Les and Becky as narrators, chapter about, more or less. Becky’s sections are written as if in her journal, where she writes in poetic language and often includes poems. We all have a different tolerance level for poetic style in prose – mine is low, and Becky’s chapters increasingly irritated me as the book went on. What starts out as wonderfully descriptive writing morphs eventually into a kind of contrived “creative” writing, where Becky/Rash invent new words because apparently the English language simply isn’t large enough as it stands. However, I’m quite sure that people who love poetic writing will love this.
Les’ chapters, on the other hand, are written in the sort of world-weary style of noir and I loved this, and enjoyed the thoughtful portrayal of his character as a good man driven down by the things he has witnessed in his job. He has his own morality, which is not always the morality demanded of a law officer. For example, he takes bribes to look the other way, so long as he feels the crime he is ignoring is one which the law treats too harshly. He is a mix of righteousness and weakness, whose absorption in his own emotional state makes him cold, blind, perhaps, to those of other people. His wife’s depression, for example, seems to have been an unwelcome annoyance to him, his sympathy going all to himself rather than to her. However, he is aware of mistakes he has made along the way, and beats himself up emotionally over them. I felt Rash wanted me to sympathise with him, but I found myself less forgiving than Rash seemed to be aiming for.
It’s a relatively short book at under 300 pages, but it’s a very slow burn. It takes nearly half the book before any kind of plot emerges, and even then it’s rather low-key. Most of the time is taken up with studies of the two main characters and rather shallower ones of a handful of secondary characters. In sum, they paint a picture of this rather dreadful society where drugs are distorting and destroying the social structures and blurring moral lines. Not everyone in town is a dealer or an addict, but all are affected in some way – by crime, by the addiction of a family member, by poverty. The contrast between that and the loveliness that nature abundantly provides is rather disorienting, and ultimately depressing: “Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile.” The whole tone is bleak and although there is a resolution of sorts at the end for the characters, one feels that this society in a larger sense may be beyond hope of redemption.
I have mixed feelings about it, overall. I loved Rash’s writing when he was sticking to the plainer, bleaker style of Les’ voice, but the over-poeticism (as I saw it) of Becky’s chapters remained a running irritant throughout. I fear I found the depiction of this drug-saturated society both totally credible and totally depressing. And I found the sheer number of traumas that our various characters had lived through and carried as emotional baggage all felt too much – beyond likelihood, and therefore reminding me that Rash was manipulating the characters like the man behind the curtain, making his dolls dance to a dismal tune of his own composing. Yes, I know that’s what all authors do, but the success of a puppet show comes in making the audience forget the existence of the puppeteer.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley. (In 2016! Oops!)