Lyrical, quietly powerful debut novel from a young, prizewinning short story writer.
West Virginia native Null locates his century-plus–past yarn in the hollers and folds of Tuscarora County, “near the hinge of western Maryland,” where, as he memorably writes, “the natives—Seneca, Shawnee—had been wise enough to treat this as vague hunting ground, not a place to plant yourself.” That’s just so with the three New Yorkers ("the absentees," Null calls them) who wander in at the beginning of the tale, plant their figurative flag, and set about extracting what they can from country they will never see again—timber, mostly, but then coal and other resources. Their first fear is that the country will play out; when it doesn’t, their fears turn to the people who have, in fact, planted themselves there and are increasingly resentful of selling their birthrights for less than a mess of pottage. One, with the portentous name Cur Greathouse, the moral center of the story, spends his time sorting out how he and his kin can best pull a living out of the mountains in peace, knowing full well that “living in failure is easy”; his fellow timber man Amos Church has less neighborly designs on the one absentee who is in fact not absent but spends time in a town so new that there’s not a brick in view—a good safeguard, that absentee remarks, against having your head bashed in. Violence is commonplace in the timber camps and little towns of this ridge-and-bottomland country, and everyone’s a little worse for the wear, from the sawyers to the whores to the traveling peddlers and even the bosses. Against a backdrop of labor unrest and the growing destruction of the old-growth forest, Null weaves a morality play of many threads: who will betray whom and at what price?
The writing is exact and assured, the story complex and rewarding. Fans of John Sayles’ film Matewan will find this a kindred work and just as good.