Reviewed by Donna Meredith
The land itself and male characters dominate the early works of West Virginia author Matthew Neill Null. They include the literary novel Honey from the Lion (Lookout Books, 2015) and a short story collection, Allegheny Front (Sarabande Books, 2016), which won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. If there is an overarching theme, it can be found in the way men destroy wildlife, each other, and even the very land needed to survive.
Winner of the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the O. Henry Award, Null holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He might be compared to the legendary John Ehle, author of such novels as The Land Breakers and Trail of Tears. Both men examine without sentimentality the raw beauty and hardscrabble life in the Appalachian Mountains.
The novel’s title alludes to the biblical story of Samson, who kills a lion with his bare hands. Later, he learns bees have hived inside the lion’s carcass. In this novel set in the early 1900s in West Virginia, timber is the honey; land, the lion. Men “tore sweetness out of that rough unlikely place. They wrestled it down and made it give. Blessed by it again, and again, and again.” Timber companies cut enough boards “to reach the moon and back thrice over.” Before the boom, two-thirds of the state was covered in virgin timber. By the time the story closes, it was “20 percent and dwindling.”
Seldomridge, a preacher to the timber wolves and Helena community, proclaims, “The land is scraped clean. Who took it? Everyone and no one.” As long as the company provides jobs, no one pays attention to the destruction of the land. The company and the timber wolves cut trees until “the land was a mutilated sea.” It’s not only the trees the men have destroyed. The timber wolves receive a dime for every dozen rattlers and copperheads they killed. They killed more than 700 off Spruce Knob alone. In the end, Mount Spruce stood “in the distance, biting clouds. . . . They saw no deer, no livestock, not even a carrion crow. The horrible tranquility of it all. No birds sang.” An entire ecosystem is destroyed.
While Cur Greathouse is the main character, many others populate and even narrate sections of the novel. They comprise five main groups. First, those in Cur’s family, abandoned following a scandal involving his young stepmother. Second, the union-friendly timber wolves Cur joins at the Cheat River Paper and Pulp company’s Blackpine camp. Third, company management, ruthless men who will stop at nothing to prevent unionization. Fourth, the absentee owners of the company. These owners—city dwellers, who parlay their wealth into political careers—note that “[t]he meek shall inherit the earth but not its mineral rights.” And finally, peripheral characters who interact with the timber wolves, such as the Reverend Seldomridge; Syrian peddler Lis Grayab; and Zala, Cur’s steady woman in town. Null gives each of these a voice and a story.
Destruction of the old growth forest fuels the great cities of the north that none of the timber wolves will ever see. Cur Greathouse “hated the faceless swarms that hived there in the cities he’d never been to. They took everything. They took his land and his life and his years.” Yet this internal musing ignores Cur’s own responsibility in the rape of the forests.
Cur’s nickname hints that he is inferior in some way, a cowardly fellow. Fellow timberman and his closest ally, Asa Neversummer concludes that “Cur wasn’t vicious enough . . . He was water; he would fill whatever container you poured him into, and then you could freely pour him back out.” Neversummer worries Cur will desert the union just when they need him the most, that he won’t be able to kill if necessary. The choice is uprising or subjugation: “perhaps no middle exists.”
Timbering was a harsh life. Men were maimed. Died. Were buried with little ceremony. Those planning to strike want “a doctor to visit the camps once a week, not once a month. Twenty-five cents an hour, not two dollars a day. A hot lunch. A ten-hour shift, not one without end. Collective bargaining, glory, power, recognition, revenge, a right to jury trial for strikers.”
As rumors of a strike circulate, management grows increasingly ruthless. Kidnappings, murder, explosions, and betrayals pull readers along with Cur on his journey. Yet at times, the plot skates rather slowly, darting from one character’s narration to another, sometimes pursuing threads and points of view that feel less compelling than Cur’s. On the other hand, the diversions provide dimension, offering nuance and fullness to the characters.
Null’s descriptions of nature are particularly lovely with lines like these: “a molten sunrise spilled into the mountains as if tipped from a jug,” “the winter-bitten grass greened only in patches,” and “track of foxes and birds braided in the snow.” The rhododendrons have blooms that are “rotten and liquor sweet.” Null succeeds in evoking the essence of West Virginia mountain life.
His descriptions of people are equally fine. A constable’s face has “a rich, uneven surface, like marly limestone.” A bald fellow has “jug ears.” A voice is “raspy” and “scouring.”
Men deliver thoughtful musings like these: “A man can love and kill with the same hand, he can stroke a child’s head or smash it on a hearthstone,” and “What you wanted most was the thing denied you.”
Occasionally a flash forward comes across as an unnecessary author intrusion. For example: “Someday, [Cur] would think of her as the assassin’s wife.” This jump in time removes readers from the present moment of the story.
Nonetheless, Null’s exacting description of the environmental destruction and collision of social classes during the Gilded Age elevate this historical fiction to the level of a classic.
Like Null’s debut novel, his short story collection explores the gritty lives of mostly male characters in rural Appalachia. Precise details of geological features, equipment of all sorts, and animal life mark these stories. In spare, perfectly crafted prose, Null does for Appalachia what Cormac McCarthy does for the American West.
Cartwright is a traveling salesman in the first story, “Something You Can’t Live Without.” He visits backwoods farms in his buckboard wagon, peddling the latest farm equipment to people who really can’t afford to buy it. The salesman convinces them that they really, really want his equipment, but they can’t possibly come up with the money. As mountaineers, they were practically born with rifles tucked under their arms. This conflict can’t end well.
Recalling the folk tale of the boy who cried wolf, in “Rocking Stone” an uncle jokes with two children, pretending his arm is stuck under a rock. He asks them to get a saw to cut him loose. Later, when he tries this stunt again, one child kicks the rock. This time, it does trap his arm. You can guess the outcome and it isn’t pretty.
Love stars in “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River.” Those with a contagious illness are isolated on an island where nuns nurse them until they die. But a boy falls in love with a girl he sees across the river as she walks along the island. With Null as the writer, you know this will not end well, instead offering a twist that brings a lifetime of guilt to the boy.
Other stories offer clashes between farmers and game wardens, bears and opinion polls, and locals who both despise and love the eco-tourists who come annually to raft the whitewater.
The land discourages softness of any kind. In “Gauley Season,” a teenage girl dies when a raft overturns. The raft trip leader survives but is racked by guilt.
In a piece titled “Telemetry,” Kathryn is one of three scientists surgically implanting telemetry devices in wild brook trout. The scientists hope to rebuild the river after a paper company dynamited the boulders and channels, destroying the natural habitat of fish. When a single dad shows up in the wilderness with a little girl in tow, soft-hearted Kathryn sees no harm in sharing meals and companionship. All goes well until one of the scientists falsely accuses the visitor of pouring bleach in the river to catch a patriarch trout. The resulting violence causes Kathryn to alter her plans to remain in West Virginia when the research project is over. This is the only story with a female protagonist, one who, in the end, chooses a more urban environment over the harshness of Appalachia and its people.
The Allegheny front is no country for old men, let alone women or children. There are no happy endings here.
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