Short story writer Taylor's first novel is a hillbilly noir employing literary language to explore the dark corners of human frailty.
Taylor sets his story in present-day western Kentucky, among
coal-raped hills and "a dingy worn trouble of hollers" near the
Gasping River, its waters "a worn keep of verses that even now were being
writ with the ceaseless churn of the waters." Beam Sheetmire,
"nineteen, full of bull piss with his own portion of meanness lurking in
him," accidentally kills a man attempting to rob him while Beam was
operating his father Clem's river ferry. Clem urges Beam to run, but Beam soon
learns he’s running not from justice but from Loat Duncan, "a man others
respected and feared," thief, gambler, pimp and killer. Taylor’s novel is
a tangled, macabre morality tale, with Beam learning hard lessons exemplified
by Pete, an old ginseng hunter, who tells him, "[y]ou’re in some bad
country and it’s full of bad men." The plot speeds along, introducing
minor players like a trucker in a three-piece suit, with eyes "no
different than the clean blank eyes of a marble cherubim," and Daryl,
"a double amputee and pusher of whores and prime stroke grass."
Loat’s relentless pursuit isn’t about revenge. In fact, Beam is Loat’s
biological son. Beam’s mother, Derna, once Loat’s mistress and then his
prostitute, left him for "Clem...the mere jackscrabble of denim and
hearsay, a rumor of a man who had loved a woman with all the sad implacable
wrong of his heart." Taylor’s understanding of place, "ancient beyond
all measure and remote beyond all reckoning," and the hard people who
"walk around with the dark all their lives until they are the dark"
echoes the cultural dissections of Daniel Woodrell and James Lee Burke.
A brilliant debut.