An anonymous, dying poet unmasks himself to neighbors and family members in Schell’s (Woody, 2016, etc.) conclusion to the three-novel Folksong Suite.
Irene Louise McIntyre Nelley, known as Rainey, is a housewife living with her sassy Irish mother, her two precocious children, and her caring trucker husband in her beloved hometown of Stonyville, West Virginia, in the year 2000. She struggles to feel fulfilled while writing short stories and sporadically attempting to publish them. Her life changes forever, though, when her quiet, next-door neighbor, the elderly Cutch Anson Voltz, tells her a secret: he’s the revered, pseudonymous regional poet known as “Cabbage Smith.” Cutch, dying of cancer, asks her to read his poems at his eventual funeral. An awed Rainey agrees to share her own stories with him, and a careful description of her grandmother’s farm leads to an even bigger revelation: Cutch is, in fact, her mother’s long-lost brother. He quickly becomes an integral element of Rainey’s family, and numerous flashbacks demonstrate how he positively affected Rainey’s life in the past by encouraging her daughter to play music, for example, or by supporting Rainey’s brief attempt to run a natural-foods store. As Cutch’s death grows closer, the circle of people who know his secret grows wider and wider: first Rainey’s mother, then Cutch’s eccentric but brilliant barber, and finally the entire town. Schell gives his characters verbose, sometimes-poetic dialogue and finds striking images in Rainey’s everyday life (as when the family’s pet duck, mourning his deceased mate, finds solace by embracing his own reflection in a window). The plot can feel scattered as the flashbacks move the narrative back and forth in time; some elements also lack clear meaning, such as Rainey’s aforementioned store, whose true significance to her remains vague. Still, Rainey’s first-person voice is undeniably compelling throughout. The book’s last 70-plus pages consist of Uncle Cutch’s final work, the poetry collection Cross Street. Its verses are tedious when they descend into abstract wordiness but quite enjoyable when they embrace vivid imagery, as when one describes pansies as “Dark-eyed innocence shrouded in yellow; / dainty white noses with feline whisker.”
A sometimes-unfocused but emotionally resonant novel.