Taylor (The Marrowbone Marble Company, 2010, etc.) draws a morality tale from Appalachian coal country, "a place cinched by the hills…[that] watched over man’s thin attempt at living."
Abe Baach grew up in Keystone, West Virginia, Henry Trent’s town. In 1867, Trent trekked to Keystone, dynamited railroad beds for a sawmill, and opened a coal seam. Abe’s father, Al, a German-Jewish cobbler, came along later, staying because the "people of West Virginia laughed easy and looked at you straight when they spoke." Trent set Al up in a saloon, and Al married a local girl, while Trent and his amoral police chief, Rutherford Rutherford, "short and ugly and capable of violence," ran Keystone. Then Trent built the fancy Alhambra Hotel. There, at a giant table called Oak Slab, "a game of stud poker commenced...that would last 13 years." Dipping into the grit and grime of a "red-light boomtown," Taylor’s narrative shifts from 1910 to 1877 to 1897 to 1903, touching on racism, anti-Semitism, Halley’s Comet, and the Great White Hope championship fight. Card-wizard Abe shills poker for Trent, sickens of the scheme, fumbles his relationship with childhood love Goldie Toothman, and flees town as an accused murderer. While East Coast grifting among folk like Swollen Man, Dropsy Phil, and Bushel-Heap Lou, "Abe had learned in his years gone to tamp down those reckless habits." In Keystone, Abe’s brother, Jake, "went prohibitionist, religified" and was murdered by Trent’s gang. Abe returns home for revenge through a long con, The Sting-style. Taylor has a gift for language—"hope was a notion to think about quitting," a doctor tells dying Jake’s family—but his conclusion is more cinematic than literary.
Like Portis’ True Grit, an American fable told with literary nuance.