I posted on Facebook a couple times over the last few weeks about the mystery behind the man with the trail name Mostly Harmless who was found dead in his tent. Vance John Rodriguez went into the woods to find himself. It didn’t save him. I’ve been reading Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft. Going into the woods did save Kephart. Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail is the story of Taz Chavis finding himself. Recently released from prison, and after traveling to his hometown to settle his father’s estate, Taz sets off on a through hike of the Appalachian Trail to leave his life in the gutter behind.
In the vast wilderness of the Appalachian Trail, three hikers are searching for answers. Taz Chavis, just released from prison, sees the thru-hike as his path to salvation and a way to distance himself from a toxic relationship. Simone Decker, a young scientist with a dark secret, is desperate to quell her demons. Richard Nelson, a Blackfoot Indian, seeks a final adventure before taking over the family business back home. As they battle hunger, thirst, and loneliness, and traverse the rugged terrain, their paths begin to intersect, and it soon becomes clear that surviving the elements may be the least of their concerns. Hikers are dying along the trail, their broken bodies splayed on the rocks below. Are these falls accidental, the result of carelessness, or is something more sinister at work?
The Amazon Editorial Reviews compare Forrester to Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy, which is unfortunate. Forrester suffers for it. It doesn’t have the deep sense of place in the hills like Woodrell’s works set in the Ozarks or McCarthy’s works set in Appalachia. The AT isn’t a part of the hills any more than I-81—both just happen to pass through. Forrester does do a good job capturing the unique culture of the AT, but it’s given too short shrift.
This would be less problematic if the characters and the plot could carry the story, but unfortunately they do not. Unlike Tolstoy’s unhappy families, Forrester’s unhappy couples are all unhappy in the same way. He rotates freely among POVs, but every POV has the same voice. Nor is Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail a page-turning thriller. It falls into that uncomfortable space between success in the high arts of literature and success in the low arts of literature.
Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail isn’t bad by any means. But it’s mediocre-to-good at best in its major components, and what it does well it does too little of. I felt like we barely brushed on the AT, on Taz’s personal journey, etc.
It did, however, make me a little more skittish around ledges.
3 of 5 Stars.