This gritty debut novel, set in the fictitious southern Appalachian town of Coalton, chronicles the mundanities and political machinations of life in a coal-mining community.
Itkonen’s storyline doesn’t follow any one particular character as much as it does the unfolding events in a small town and its surroundings. The diverse cast features a wide range of people, including train-riding hoboes looking for work in the mines, a morally bankrupt coal-company CEO who will do anything to make his mines productive, and his disgruntled employees plotting revenge. Larry Miller, the head of the International Coal Company, Inc., is arguably the most fully realized and intriguing character in the book, as much of the plot revolves around his unethical actions to make his company more profitable. They include creating false documents to steal land from a beloved local businessman, gaining permit approvals from an Army Corps of Engineers regional director by using illegal drugs, and placing a spy in his own mines to ferret out pro-union workers. However, the overall story becomes a bit contrived when a group of Russian gangsters infiltrates the town, with a plan to kidnap and ransom one or both of Miller’s daughters. Indeed, the lack of a clear, identifiable plot thread throughout markedly muddles the narrative momentum and, with so many two-dimensional characters, it makes the novel a difficult one to get into. The novel is well-written and vividly imagined, with some passages that immerse readers in the story: “Most mornings brought fresh air to Coalton, as cool and clean mountain air descended from the weathered peaks that encircled the town, flushing the stale and dusty atmosphere downhill to Virginia.” However, its lack of sympathetic main characters ends up making it a strangely detached, emotionally flat reading experience. In the end, the rich backdrop of the rural coal town—with its abject poverty, black market moonshine, brothels and Pentecostal churches—is more memorable than the cast of characters that inhabit it.
A sometimes-vivid but ultimately forgettable glimpse into the coal-mining industry and the men and women who work in it, due to superficial characterization.