Sunday, December 20, 2020

THE FALLS OF THE WYONA, a coming-of-age novel about last midcentury set in beautiful Appalachia


Red Hen Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In The Falls of the Wyona by David Brendan Hopes, four friends growing up on the banks of a wild Appalachian river just after WWII discover, almost at the same time, the dangerous, alluring Falls and the perils of their own maturing hearts. Seen through the eyes of his best friend Arden, football hero Vince falls in love with the new kid, Glen. They have no context for their feelings, and the next few years of high school become a tense, though sometimes funny, artifice of concealment. The winner of Red Hen’s Quill Prize, The Falls of the Wyona is the first of three achieved (and several more projected) novels by this author imbued with the magical atmosphere of Appalachian culture.


My Review
: The thing about historical novels, ones set in a past deep enough to have lost its currency, is that they might as well be fantasy novels. On the other hand, historical novels that take place when one's parents were getting married and having their first children are in a peculiar place between contemporary and stuffy-old-fashioned nostalgia fests.

I went on this journey, to be sure, knowing where I was headed. The historical part wasn't that historical to my frame of reference; the queer part contained my frame of reference; so what was I doing here, exactly? Touristing a bygone age's homophobia, knowing it would end badly? Or listening to the gift of a story told by a person whose life was more firmly rooted in that time and place than mine? In the end, it's a matter of semantics, distinction without difference. I went to the Wyona River and I saw the Falls, felt the way it broke the people of its town into parts. Boys and girls led very separate lives when I was growing up, too, but the river being so exclusively (in the narrator, Alden's, mind) male rang me like a bell. The funny thing for me was seeing how open Vince, the coach's only child, was about his love for Glen...but only by the maleness of the Wyona.

Arden's narration of the moments that small-town Southern football-playin' boys shared then and now, if Friday Night Lights et alii are to be believed, came close to wearing my armor thin. I didn't like those guys, they didn't like me, and I was right back there in those awful, ugly hallways. Arden, a jock, and Tilden the smart jock, both orbit Vince or Vinny (depending on some weird social cue I never worked out, the nicknames interchanged) in a way that I saw clearly as a former high-school nobody. Glen finds them, and improbably gets to hang with them; many are the jealous glances the four received, I'm sure. Vince falls in love with Glen. Arden knows, but doesn't really care, because the knowledge doesn't touch his love for Vince or fondness for Glen. Tilden starts to figure it out, a little, but can't quite contextualize it.

High-school loves are always hotly urgently NEW and DEEP!! A parent as doting as Vince's former football-star father is begins to dread this's the 1940s, that was inevitable...and horrible, wicked, cruel things begin to happen. Poor Glen...a gloriously romantic tableau ends in as awful a passage as any I've read. The most poignant, delightful scene I read was when Glen's father visits Arden at his home, admits he knows that Glen was in love with Vince and says in effect, "I wouldn't have changed what I told Glen to do to win over his true love even if I'd known then what I do now." Arden doesn't know what this means, kid that he is, and Glen's dad asks him just to be Glen's friend. It was a heartbreaking, lovely moment, deeply felt and viscerally real. It gave me the true tragic heart of the story, and it is the best reason I can give you, straight or gay, parent or not, to read this story.

The ending of the book, of necessity I think, is crowded and over-wrought. People come to accommodations that are not adequately explained, the sudden realizations and restorations aren't very realistic, and the theme of Love Conquering All feels fragile and thin. I don't think there was a better way off this horse, though. The need to end the story at this point and in this specific gestalt really could not be gainsaid.

But that troubled my readerly gravity, pushing me out of the gravity well when I expected to be reeled in and landed. Author Hopes has a lot of storytelling behind him. It shows in every beat he counts. It is always agreeable to be guided by a steady, firm hand. In the end, this tour was ended abruptly and I left the read wishing, regretting ever so slightly, wondering how, or if, the ending could've been more rooted in the story told.

I can't answer that, and it is that fact which left me with a three-plus star rating instead of the four-plus I'd expected to leave.

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