Tuesday, May 10, 2016

ALLEGHENY FRONT, the 2016 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction winner

This was my first monthly short-story collection review for late, lamented site, The Oak Wheel. Since May is National Short Story Month, a few other favorites might appear as well. Sarabande Books and Matthew Neill Null collaborated to produce a beautiful book, and a beautiful literary work. Lydia Millet deserves our thanks for selecting ALLEGHENY FRONT as the 2016 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.


Sarabande Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Most Anticipated Books of 2016, The Millions
Top Summer Books 2016, Publisher's Weekly

Set in the author's homeland of West Virginia, this panoramic collection of stories traces the people and animals who live in precarious balance in the mountains of Appalachia over a span of two hundred years, in a disappearing rural world. With omniscient narration, rich detail, and lyrical prose, Matthew Neill Null brings his landscape and characters vividly to life.
"Allegheny Front has few sentimental trappings. . . . Men's stubbornness is a rock face, in these intelligent and unpretentious stories, their anger a crown fire, their occasional tenderness a rill. . . . It remains at a distance from judgment, at a remove from easy definitions, unspooling a lucid and often painful history of appetite, exploitation, and bereavement."—Lydia Millet, from the introduction

My Review: As I always do with short-story collections, I’ll move from story to story, offer up a smidgen of opinion, and some relevant quotes. At the end, I will try to sum up my overall response to the collection, and what I see as its particular merits. My online friend Bryce taught me how much more useful and meaningful a review of a diverse collection is in this format, so I call it “the Bryce Method.” And so, without further ado and from the top:

Something You Can’t Live Without demonstrates that people have always been people, time and place and customs and morals aside. We’re pretty much alike, thanks to evolutionary hard-wiring, and unique in how we go about performing our pre-programmed stunts in the world.
When a young man called Cartwright inherits an older man’s job of commission selling farming implements to the hardscrabble farmers of West Virginia, he also inherits a diary of local knowledge that makes him a darn near perfect salesman in the eyes of his bosses. He rides his two-horse wagon all over beautiful 1901 West Virginia, summer days not excepted:
He swabbed his face with his tie. Soon, the sun burned off the fog and hoisted itself in the sky. 'Horses, it's hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock. I tell you that much.'
He took another little drink. Bottle-flies turned their emerald backs in the sun. Young monarchs gathered to tongue the green horseshit and clap their wings.
It sounds idyllic to modern city-dwellers, or at least it does to this one. For Cartwright, it’s hot and he has to unload...that is, sell for a fair price...an expensive plow. He is at the end of his stock, the end of the road, and the end of his rope until he meets the McBride twins, whom he can only tell apart because one has nine fingers. He lapses into salesmanship the way a preacher does into droning tones, and the boys take him to meet their father.
Cartwright, like all good salesmen, can smell money, and this farm lacks the perfume. The McBrides try the plow out, like the ease of it, and begin to bargain; Cartwright demurs and demands cash. However, there are always exceptions to this hard-and-fast company rule, especially when the family reveals a secret: A fossilized cave bear sits partially entombed in a cave nearby! Think of the money it’s worth! Buying fossils was a common practice at the time, just as it is now in China. Cartwright’s greed clobbers his good sense, and he and the nine-fingered twin set out to the cave to see the bear. It’s there, all right, face sticking out into the cave’s emptiness, waiting to be released at last:
Cartwright grooved the chisel's tooth into the base of the skull, where the spine would fuse, and lifted the hammer. The chisel jumped in his hand and half the skull turned to silt. It cascaded down the rock wall with the faintest sigh. The {nine-fingered} boy let out a string of oaths so profane, so unparalleled, that surely they'd been inspired by a hell so near.
Cartwright was glad to have a hammer in hand.
And let the lesson be this simple: Never con a con-man. One of you ends up dead.

Mates pits one fine old man, honorable as the day is long, against the forces of change no one can really expect or plan for. He is simple in the elegant Japanese or Amish sense. His is a worldview that he absorbed unchallenged and passed to his sons as best he could. It fell on deaf ears and racing hearts, all testosterone fueled and ambition driven. These young men, and their almost-foreign wives, could never see a stream unless the ambled into it by accident; they certainly couldn’t or wouldn’t ever see it as Sull does:
Sull imagined wild brook trout, cold and firm in the fast, healthy current, buried in the water like ingots of precious metal. They hold fast to the bank, laurel-green with bellies of coal-fire. Wilder colors than you'd dare imagine on your own. Stock had destroyed the run--to be truthful, {his family} had--and silky mud rose off the bottom in slow veils where the Angus dropped their hooves. Do rivers have ghosts? Do trout swim in the air?
Sull has a finely developed sense of place and of his place in that world. His musings and sensitivities cover the heart of a farmer more used to bad luck than good. When a predator starts raiding his winter larder of Rockingham hens, Sull thinks it’s a fox. Logical, since foxes are common in West Virginia and long storied as hen-stealers. Even leg-traps won’t catch this clever bastard!

Because he’s an eagle. A bald eagle, to be precise, and Sull does what any chicken-and-dumplings lovin’ farmer does to a predator stealing the chicken: He shoots the damn thing. Nails it to the barn, too, as a message to any other bald eagle puttering around and thinking Rockingham sounds good for dinner tonight.

And then the kerfuffle begins in earnest. Increasingly senior bird-and-turtle sheriffs...that is, game wardens...all life-long friends of Sull and his family, come around to remind him it’s a federal crime to shoot, kill, snatch, or harm any bald eagle, and the penalties are no joke. When Sull gives in to their well-intentioned but much resented interference, the she-eagle exacts her price for her widowhood in Rockingham raiding. Exactly as he knew she, or another eagle, would. The slow burn of the cheated farmer begins:
For a long while, he sat on the steps and sharpened the chain-saw blade with a round file, dipping it in bar-and-chain oil and raking it over each tooth with sleek, grating sounds. He lost himself in the rhythm of the labor. A victory over tears is a small thing, but it was his. The sky went from indigo to blackness, and he saw nothing ominous in it, nothing but cold stars wheeling in their course, a course determined by the same firm hand he hoped was guiding his own. But satellites, too, crossed the sky in sly, winking arcs. Sull knew that. He could not let himself be confounded. He went inside, to sleep beside his wife.
The eagle’s nest, now obviously a barren one, is in an old red oak tree. Farmers don’t like to cut down red oaks, they provide acorns to nourish pigs (and people if the winter’s bad enough). But there she is, fat and full of his Rockinghams.

Down goes the oak. Down comes the nest. And revenge? Revenge, if you’ve never noticed, never ends.

Natural Resources is a quick recap of the Circle of Anthropocene Destruction. It’s too short to be more than a mouthful, but contains this sparkly gem:
But the earth turns, and old ways are reexamined. The insurance companies say there are so many deer, so many wrecks. They have algorithms on their side. Kill more deer. Let all the predators live.
Gauley Season begins with this perfect atmospheric, informative paragraph:
Labor Day. We could hear their bellow and grind from the Route 19 overpass. Below, the river gleamed like a flaw in metal. Leaving the parking lot behind, we billy-goated down the fisherman's trail, one by one, the way all mountain people do. Loud clumps of bees clustered in the fireweed and boneset, and the trail underfoot crunched with cans, condom wrappers, worm containers. A half-buried coal bucket rose from the dirt with a galvanized grin. The laurel hell wove itself into a tunnel, hazy with gnats. There, a busted railroad spike. The smell of river water filled our noses.
Honestly, I’d feel I’d done right by you if that’s all I told you about the story. This is my choice for chef d'oeuvre.

Well, I can’t do that. I have to tell you that the story is a tragic and horrible accident on the Gauley River’s latest service to mankind, rafting the rapids in the summer when the Army Corps of Engineers allow the nearest dam to spill close to the natural flow sacrificed when rural electrification came to this slice of back-country. Kelly Bischoff, survivor of several kinds of employment changes as the resources being extracted from the wealth and welter of West Virginia change, end up starting the first rafting adventure company owned by a local and hiring locals only. After Kelly loses control of a raft full of tourists, good fortune smiles his way one last time as only two people die: a teen girl and her father. The rest of his life, of course, is a hell of regret and understated suspicion:
{T}hen he whispered something that turned Reed pale and bloodless--and that Reed wouldn't tell about until years later. 'You're the one lied about Meadow Creek,' Kelly said. 'Lied about finding her. Why would you do that to me?'
We left him there as the drawknife of dusk peeled back the world.
A man like Kelly, a local success brought low by an accident, well you can just imagine the stories folks whisper. Even Kelly tells a tale about the accident that shocks the socks off his listeners. As you’d expect, a well-known man deprived of his status...it’s worse than actual physical death, and it’s shared out among all the mountaineers and rafters to come.

Telemetry is a moment in the arc of a woman’s life when her decisions, her loyalties, and her sense of place all collide. Kathryn Tennant leads a field team of biologists for a pleasant camping trip near a trout stream. I mean, a field assignment to study movement patterns among the trout via insertion into the fish of a tracking device. She’s at the end of her degree studies; her mom is still here, the reason she stayed in West Virginia for school; her previous years of field work have given her confidence in her data and data-gathering techniques. Her findings will hold up, her work will back up an informative and necessary finding if trout, recreational fishing’s basic fish, are to thrive here. Most anywhere, in fact; she is a real scientist making real contributions to the world. She has been on this trajectory for some time:
{W}hy did she go into the field? A twinge of pleasure, of knowledge. Her dad would pull over to the side of a bridge, and they would watch from above, before he slipped down the bank to catch them. She was charmed by the motions of trout. How they take their forms from the pressures of another world, the cold forge of water. Their drift, their mystery, the way they turn and let the current take them, take them, with passive grace. They turn again, tumbling like leaves, then straighten with mouths pointing upstream, to better sip a mayfly, to root up nymphs, to watch for the flash of a heron's bill. The current always trues them, like compass needles. When she watches them, she feels wise.
And for this year’s fieldwork, the insurance year, she has two male companions, Michael and Gary, who are doing their own researches in the riparian biome. That she is sleeping with Michael when Gary wants her too doesn’t make things easy for her; add in the arrival of Nedermeyer, an apparent survivalist and his daughter Shelly across the meadow and tensions spread like kudzu vines. Shelly has sticky fingers. Nedermeyer probably has PTSD. Their tent looks like a Civil War holdover.

Without much ever being said, the two groups begin to hang out. Proximity counts for a lot in a place this remote:
The boulderfields, the spaces empty of people--a lonesomeness city-dwellers could never comprehend. Sometimes it seems like you know animals more intimately than people. Beaver heads cutting wake in the water, bear shit jeweled with seeds, deer quenching themselves in the river's cool. Her family has lived here for three hundred years. But the place is wretchedly poor and backward and may never be right.
A Fourth of July celebration gone horribly wrong proves to Kathryn that she is that saddest of people, the one who loses home from gaining perspective. She is a reluctantly eager exile, the inevitable result of all her choices that were made all unknowing of the price coming due.

The Island in the Gorge of the Great River is a ten or twelve acre scrap of isolation where “the county” sends people to die. Given the date we’re provided for this event, 1890, it’s pretty safe to assume the disease being fought is tuberculosis. Local boys, as boys always have, taunt and torment anyone who comes to the island’s near shore. John Drew, our PoV character, sees and falls for a young girl whose response to him (only him) is saucy and flirtatious. John is obsessed, haunts the shore, and when he no longer sees the lassie or she runs off home, he trudges to the family home:
He returned to Pinch, waiting for the mine whistle to break the day into pieces. When it did, the miners surfaced with empty lunch buckets, leaving the portal, walking the narrow main drag with its bank, post office, and commissary. They found their own company shacks in straggling rows three deep, each one identical, with the same stovepipe, same curl of smoke, same yellow dog lazing in a bare yard. its tail beginning to wag.
John’s father, a very good man, comes home from the mines and makes his best attempts to instill values into his son. While John listens, he retains his obsession with the girl on the island of death. It comes to the point that John attempts, in a rickety canoe he’s never handled before, to find his young love. It goes, as you’d expect, horribly wrong:
He sees the lights of heaven, but they are as pale and indistinct and more than a little disappointing: Fayetteville, with its new row of gaslights on the river road. … {H}e can’t go home to face his mother and father, where they mattock small graves from a hillside, and that is a kind of death. He has a sliver of ice. Home is not for him. He lies breathing. He is rushing on.
Is he less dead because he’s breathing? John Drew, given nineteenth-century communications, is unlikely to see or speak to anyone from Pinch ever again. He is launched into a future he will navigate without guides or help.

Rocking Stone is the shortest piece in the collection, the lightest in weight, the least in meaning for my eyes. An unmarried great-uncle takes delight in the children of his nephew’s home, leading them around the woods on their few acres, teaching them mountain lore and playing silly jokes and games with them. When a habitual joke backfires in a horrible way, the family dynamic is forever shifted.

For all of me, the old coot got what was coming to him for playing practical jokes on little girls. Definitely my least favorite story.

The Slow Lean of Time follows the adventures and misadventures of Sarsen, an experienced log drover, and his latest charity case, a drover-wannabe called Henry who was supposed to come with his cousin to learn log-droving.

Henry’s only seventeen, a boy really, and leaving his home to walk to the Gauley River logging head doesn’t keep him from appreciating the river’s life and death struggles:
An awful, heartbroken cackling from the reeds behind. A vortex formed. A hole in the water. Into this, tufts of feathers disappeared. Turning, Henry saw the fish inhale two ducklings. The others broke into the main river and were swept downstream, their mother with them. The thrashing fish threw water like a canoe blade. Gills flared as it wolfed them down. Henry looked about, frantic, but no one else was there to see, no one to assure him it was true.
Almost the first person he meets, though he’s looking for his cousin, is the loud, powerful senior log-drover Sarsen, a mountain of muscle and experience. Henry, a scrawny kid to look at but not without muscle power of his own, is in awe of Sarsen and willingly follows his instructions on droving. When the day’s down-time begins, Sarsen is still the center of Henry’s world:
He lifted the thrashing muskellunge, held it up for the world to see, and let the thrash go out of its body in a final, lurking shudder. He had pierced it through, a third of the way behind its head. Pale out of the water, all dull greenish-bronze and insipid vermiculations, except for reddish fins that reminded Henry of his mother's hard tack candy. It had the teeth of a nasty little dog. Sarsen slid its body down off the staff, leaving a watery braid of blood. Off the pike, its wound seemed to close. He lifted it by the tail and hollered.

Sarsen could do anything.
What Sarsen can’t do is prevent tragedy, change, unhappiness, and the inevitable relegation of the used-up veteran of jobs that don’t exist to that horrible non-position of “character.” He tells his stories, tends his bar, and waits and waits for a chance to make right on his long-ago tragic callousness. When it arrives, Sarsen--a big spirit and bold heart to the last--takes his power into his hands and makes his fate.

In the Second District traces the fall of a family from power, the death of a way of life, and the many ropes that tie a community together, sometimes too tightly. Bear hunting is now a very controversial subject. Those unaffected by bears’ clever and destructive survival tactics, like destroying garbage cans and eating the family dog, want the creatures left to thrive in their old homeland. People living there take a very different view, needless to say. Not only does their hunting bond fathers and sons, making them part of a fraternity of hunters, but it brings in significant money from the Chinese. A bear’s gall bladder is a valued aphrodisiac in Eastern medicine in general, and that means of course that trade in them is illegal. Then again, so is public drunkenness.

Poor old dog is going to die anyway, most likely, since a cornered bear doesn’t mind who or what it swats to death in an attempt to be free.

As the Second District’s customs change, its needs must get met in other ways. A Senator’s son becomes a small-town shady lawyer. A Senator’s grandson becomes a Methodist preacher. And the other side of their family, gained by marriage, commit senseless and violent crimes, get sent to the penitentiary: the future of a collapsed economy’s leavings, toxic as mine waste.

These are nine worthy stories, and at least two of them could make really good movies on very small budgets. Lydia Millet, whose task it was to select the 2016 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, served us the reading public very very well in making this choice. Beautiful prose and a native’s irreplaceable eye for home ground combine to create a wonderful reading experience. This is a fine entry into the genre of grit lit. Lives as rough as moonshine going down the wrong pipe, as blasted as a meth lab accident become tough, challenging art in Null’s gifted hands.

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