Country Noir: The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

The Orchard Keeper is about as powerful a statement on the ethos of Appalachia as can be written in fiction.

McCarthy has been compared favorably to both Faulkner and Melville; the Orchard Keeper is more Faulkner-esque, in contrast to the Border trilogy, which is more Melville-esque.  It is a truly challenging read.  All the payoff is at the end when you sit back and let the entirety of what you just read sink in.

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Fiction: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain begins with Inman, a confederate soldier, laid up convalescing in a military hospital.  As he heals, his dread of returning to the fighting grows and he eventually decides to strike out for home and his left love—in the shadows of Cold Mountain (near Brevard in modern-day western North Carolina).  That left love, Ada, a preacher’s daughter originally from Charleston, meanwhile, is trying to cope with the loss of her father and her newfound destitution.  She may not have survived but for a partnership with a mountain woman, Ruby, her complete opposite in almost every way and her likeness in every other.

I grew up in this part of the country, with roots in the area that go back to well before the Civil War, and the language rings truer than any I have read elsewhere, whether written by Ron Rash, Cormac McCarthy, or whoever.  And Frazier does it without resorting to phonetic spelling.  It really does read like it’s a story your grandfather is telling you by the fireplace after Sunday dinner.  One that was passed down to him from his grandfather.  There are so many sort of random details that just feel right.  It’s the sort of book I wanted to read at my desk with a notebook beside me but that I couldn’t bear to read so slowly the first time through.  The prose is beautiful by any measure.

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SF: Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman

I went to a panel at the WorldCon in San Antonio a few years back on Texas Pulp SF.  Apart from the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, Texans were grossly underrepresented in the pulps.  The consensus was that they were writing speculative fiction, and good speculative fiction, but that it was getting published as folklore.  That struck close to home.  I sometimes say I didn’t discover speculative fiction until my mom forced The Hobbit on me, but that isn’t quite true.  Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I grew up with ghost stories.  Much like that Texas “folklore.”  The difference, of course, merely being one of perceptive.

You can imagine my interest then, when I discovered that an Appendix N and Weird Tales stalwart, Manly Wade Wellman, wrote an entire series of short stories very much rooted in the lore of my people.  About John.  At least that’s the only way his name is given in the stories.  He is more usually known as John the Balladeer or Silver John.  He may also be a parallel universe Johnny Cash.  Or maybe John the Baptist.  Or maybe both.

I picked up a copy of Paizo’s Hidden Worlds and Ancient Mysteries Planet Stories, The Complete Tales of Silver John, Who Fears the Devil?, presented by (and with an introduction from) Mike Resnick (2010).  Unfortunately, it is now out of print and offered at an obscene price every time lately I’ve checked on Amazon.  This is billed as a complete collection of the Silver John short stories, but Wellman also wrote five novels about John.  Haffner Press’ upcoming The Complete John the Balladeer.  The two-volume edition will contain all five novels and is available for pre-order now.

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Nonfiction: To Live Here, You Have to Fight by Jessica Wilkerson

“I don’t want to go back to jail, but if it means helping Kentucky and helping my kids, I’ll do it.”

There are two basic problems with academic books for a popular audience.  The first is that the academic writing is frequently atrocious.  The second is that the topic is often very narrow.  I am glad to report that the first is not an issue with Wilkerson’s book.  The prose is competent, if pedestrian, and Wilkerson avoids the jargon-laden incoherence that has overtaken the social sciences.  The second isn’t exactly a problem, but there is only so big an audience for a book that talks only about poor, female activists in Kentucky coal country in the wake of the War on Poverty.  I might not have picked up To Live Here, You Have to Fight had I appreciated just how narrow the subject matter was, but nevertheless I am glad I did.  The result of a narrow focus is a depth that pretty much ensures you will learn something.

Wilkerson covers a time period that starts with “the top-down, federal War on Poverty from 1964 to 1968,” but her story stretches beyond the short-lived War on Poverty itself to “the grassroots war on poverty reverberated for over a decade.”  Appalachia got pulled into the War on Poverty for political reasons, which is about as good as we can expect, I suppose.  Appalachia’s perceived (and, for the most part, actual[1]) whiteness was used to blunt the racial connotations of the anti-poverty program.  The War on Poverty may have been much less successful than the New Deal, per Wilkerson, but it had two goals: economic development and “access to health care, food, water, and education.”  Importantly, pursuit of this second goal “invited local people to participate in solving problems” with “Community Action Programs (CAPs) [that] made decisions about funding and brought together stakeholders across multicounty regions.”

That second goal allowed the participation of local, poor and working class women like Granny Hager, Edith Easterling, and Eula Hall.  Wilkerson specifically focuses on Kentucky coal country.  After all, the image that “came to represent the War on Poverty” was taken in eastern Kentucky.

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Country Noir: Like Lions by Brian Panowich

“Like most of the people who lived in the foothills of McFalls County, the dogwood tree did whatever it damn well pleased.”

In Like Lions, the sequel to his sprawling, multigenerational crime drama Bull Mountain, Panowich not only manages to exceed his first work but also to produce new and shocking Burroughs family revelations without undercutting Bull Mountain.

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Country Noir: Bearskin by James McLaughlin

Rick Morton is caretaker and science tech for over seven thousand acres of private nature preserve, a large chunk of which is old-growth forest.  He is also Rice Moore, an ex-con on the run from the Cartel.

Bearskin is gorgeously written but understated.  It’s literary without sacrificing plot.  It’s bloody without being mindless.  It contains a touch of the supernatural (maybe) and a touch of the surreal.  It walks a fine line between the people and the place of the mountains of Virginia.

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Country Noir: Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

With Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich has given us a sprawling, multigenerational crime saga.  A hillbilly Godfather.  You know what you’re in for when you see the family tree.  Country noir novels should have family trees like fantasy novels have maps.

Bull Mountain starts with one fratricide.  It won’t be the last.

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Country Noir: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

With Gods of Howl Mountain, Brown has given us a book that is right up the Hillbilly Highways alley gravel backroad.  It’s got granny women, moonshine, revenuers, moonshine runners, early stock car racing (with an appearance by Junior Johnson), end-of-the-road roadhouses and whorehouses, snake handlers, and an entire valley lost to the hillbillies so a dam could power the mills where the former farmers work for another man.  All nestled up in the mountains of northwest North Carolina where heading to civilization means Boone or Wilkesboro.

And all described by Brown with prose that is beautiful and powerful without being inaccessible or overly literary.  The prose reminds me a lot of another great country noir that I will be talking about in the nearish future, Bearskin by James McLaughlin; more so than, say, Daniel Woodrell or especially Cormac McCarthy.

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Nonfiction: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill

I once thought of Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a The Mind of the South for southern Appalachia (W.J. Cash utterly ignores the highcountry).  Now that I’ve read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I know just how different coal country is from both the lowcountry South and the stretches of Appalachia unblighted by coal and thank God again there is no coal under my particular corner of Appalachia.  Coal ruined Mr. Caudill’s country, and he’s rightfully angry about it (although his writing is never other than fair and evenhanded, perhaps too much so, as he lays out this hillbilly horror story in exacting detail).

Night Comes to the Cumberlands has immediately joined my pantheon of books I would recommend to any planning to embark on a serious study of the South along with The Mind of the South, Confederates in the Attic, and Albion’s Seed.  It occupies an even more central place in Hillbilly Studies, rivaled mainly by Albion’s Seed and perhaps Hillbilly Elegy.  Caudill purports to do nothing less than lay down the entire (European-American) history (through the early 1960s) of the Cumberland Plateau that covers most of eastern Kentucky.  The Cumberlands are a dissected plateau, hence the deep gorges, tendency toward erosion, and coal.  It is the coal that dominates Caudill’s history and causes the divergence between coal country and the rest of southern Appalachia.

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Country Noir: One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash

What better way to kick off a blog focusing on country noir with a review of my favorite book by my favorite author writing in the space?

One Foot in Eden is the story of a single, heinous murder and its ramifications on several interconnected lives.  Don’t let the beginning fool you, it’s really not a traditional crime novel; it’s a simpler story.  It’s less about the event than what it means to each character.  It’s also very much a novel about Place—the part of the South Carolina Upstate people used to call the Dark Corner, specifically the cove flooded to create Lake Jocassee.

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