Formerly Oprah-selected Morgan (Gap Creek, 1999) sticks with familiar characters and themes in a lightweight novel about a roving Appalachian boy searching for his calling in the early 20th century.
Teenaged Muir Powell wants to be a preacher, but his effort to spread the word is undermined by pride and nerves—not to mention the fact that his moonshine-running older brother Moody farts during his very first sermon. This humiliation sends Muir on a series of wanderings and adventures: running ’shine, taking a road trip north almost to Canada, trapping on the Tar River. A generous reader might excuse the tale’s choppiness as a reflection of Muir’s uncertainty about himself, though others may find that the rambling narrative feels more like stories that have been half-quilted together and never quite deliver the full-immersion experience of a novel. It takes a long time to reach Muir’s realization that his true calling is to build a church first and then preach in it, and the brothers’ rocky relationship isn’t the only storyline that starts to seem suspiciously biblical. The local sitting preacher fears that the new church will break up his congregation, a plot development that provides the opportunity for Morgan to venture into interesting thematic territory. But, like his patchwork book overall, his look at the conflict between faith and organized religion is spotty and incomplete. So is the local color that dominates here. Sometimes the voices and tone seem spare and well done, but otherwise it’s as though proper grammar has been modified with some kind of Appalachian dialect software. This is a world of conscience based on personal faith—Scripture is the characters’ language and their food—but that doesn’t prevent Muir from indulging in the most unlikely (though admittedly compelling) of first dates: the lynching of an elephant. Really.
Simple in a literal way. Morgan’s fans will be pleased.