One of these books takes place on a mountain farm in the early 20th century. The other takes place on and around various ranches in rural Wyoming. Welcome to an agriculture themed book review. Plows and horses and barbed wire fences, oh my!
The Cove by Ron Rash
I have written before of my writer crush on Ron Rash. I love his work so much. If I ever get to teach a lit class, I will find a way to include One Foot in Eden on the syllabus. The Cove, his most recent novel, although not his most recent work of fiction, is the second of his books to make it on my MFA reading list, and there are probably two or three more to add before I’m done. There are a lot of great things going on in this novel.
First, Mr. Rash once again uses the setting of the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Carolinas wonderfully. This is Rash’s story space, and he writes so well about it. This particular story is set in the town of Mars Hill. Full disclosure: I contemplated attending Mars Hill College for a brief period in my early teens because it offers a BS in zoology (which is hard to find), and I knew it would be so fun to go to school up in the mountains. I love the Blue Ridge so much. Then I learned that Mars Hill is a Baptist school, and I was like, “Hahaaaaa! No.”
Second, the story is set during World War I, an oft overlooked moment in American history. Seriously, I can watch an entire television series on Hitler and the occult, but I can’t for the life of me remember what started WWI aside from some Franz Ferdinand something-or-other going and getting himself killed in Sarajevo. And that’s probably more than most folks can remember about it. Rash’s blending of familiar setting with unfamiliar history makes for such an interesting read. And it’s clear that this story was meticulously researched. I really like that.
Third, and most importantly, this novel represents everything that is great about tragedy. (Spoiler alert: this thing don’t end well. It’s literary fiction. What do you expect?) I don’t like things that are sad just for the sake of being sad. But there’s a reason that tragedy—true tragedy—has been a part of storytelling since humans had the ability to communicate. There’s something we love about having our hearts broken…when they’re broken well.
When I was an English major at the University of South Carolina, I was lucky enough to take a course called Shakespeare’s Tragedies with Dr. Nina Levine. We started the course with talking about the characteristics of tragedy, going back to ol’ Aristotle and Greek theater. I took the course the semester after I took Shakepeare’s Comedies and Histories, also with Dr. Levine. What’s interesting is how similar comedy and tragedy are until you hit a pivotal moment in the plot. A character makes a fateful decision that can either send the story veering off into hilarity and a happy ending or plunging into the depths of despair and death. The ancients characterized the typical comedy as the story of boy meets girl, boy wants girl but male family member (usually a father) stands in the way, boy comes up with hare-brained scheme to get girl anyhow. Variations on this theme have produced great comedies for millennia and really shitty rom-coms now. But what is so fascinating is that we see a similar set-up in many tragedies. Think Romeo and Juliet. That play is thisclose to being a comedy according to the traditional definition. (Also? It’s full of dirty jokes which my 9th grade English teacher glossed right over.) But then Romeo makes the really bad decision to kill Tybalt, and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.
Similarly, Laurel and Walter, the lovers at the center of this novel, make some really bad decisions. Under different circumstances, this could be a comedy. Not of the Ha Ha type, but certainly a romance with a happy ending. Instead, this story is like the best of Shakespeare’s plays. You know—you just know—that this is going to end badly, horribly. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Yet you keep holding out hope that at the last second, things will turn around. They will be saved, redeemed. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re not surprised, but you still feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. That’s good tragedy. In The Cove, the moment of truth—the moment of horror that you know is coming—still manages to surprise and subvert your expectations. That’s great tragedy.
If you only like schmaltzy stuff and happy endings, this isn’t the book for you. But if you want to read just some amazing effing writing, this is a must-read.
Bone Fire by Mark Spragg
I received this book as a gift, which makes me hate what I’m about to write about it. Brendon Barnes (Remember that name, people. He’s a crazy good writer and will, no doubt, become famous someday.) is a fellow MFAer at UCF, and said the novel’s focus on place seemed like something I was going for in my own writing. And it has an explosion at a meth lab, and my novel has some crazy meth heads in it. He was right. This was something I needed to read.
I hated it.
On the one hand, the sentence-level writing was superb. Crisp, spare. He said exactly what he needed to say and nothing more. It’s a style I can appreciate, and it shows a real dedication to craft. On that hand, I say bravo, Mr. Spragg. But on the other hand…
OhmygodIdon’tcare! I just could not care about any of these characters. Could not find it in me, no matter how far down I dug, to care. At all. Not one iota. The biggest issue was that there was practically no plot. The novel was just an arrangement of random scenes involving only loosely related characters. At the beginning, I’m okay with jumping from the artistic college drop-out caring for her elderly grandfather to the small town sheriff investigating a murder at a meth lab to a precocious boy and his flighty, free-spirited mother. You’re going to draw them all together in the end, right? Right? Well, in the case of Bone Fire, the answer to that question is sort of. And that’s just not good enough for me. They’re all central to the story (or lack thereof), but only peripheral in each others’ lives. Then what’s the point?
I get it. The best stories, especially if we are talking literary fiction, are character-driven. True, but…
There still needs to be a plot! Something has to happen! You can’t just throw a bunch of people on the paper and be all like, “Yeah, so, here’s what these folks are like.” Are those folks going to do anything of interest? Anything to make it worth my time? And as lovely as the writing itself is in this novel, I did not find it a good pastime.
I guess everything on my summer reading list can’t be a home run.