Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Glenn Taylor’s new over-the-top caper sparkles with cinematic scenes begging to be transformed into film. A Hanging at Cinder Bottom: A Novel (Tin House Books) is primarily set in West Virginia coal country with occasional forays into Baltimore.
The white-faced monkey depicted on the cover plays a role in a story as entertaining as a three-ring circus—and at times, the author seems to be juggling that many acts at once. The novel might be compared to the movies The Sting or Catch Me If You Can. It also fits the definition of a picaresque novel in the vein of The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling or A Confederacy of Dunces.
When the story begins in the summer of 1910 in Keystone, West Virginia, a crowd is gathering to watch the hanging of a handsome young man and his beautiful woman. Both are naked in their cells and the guards can’t resist surreptitious, admiring glances. At first, the nudity seems gratuitous—but it’s soon revealed the heat in the prison is oppressive, an excuse for shedding clothes that readers may or may not accept as reasonable.
Police Chief Rutherford, an exceptionally short man with a grudge against the condemned, is eager to set the noose around their necks himself. Instead, on the gallows Rutherford becomes deathly ill and pitches forward. The court stenographer dutifully records, “Tiny falls on face, farts in carefree fashion. Condemned remarks ‘Amen.’”
After this rip-roaring farcical beginning, the novel dives back to 1877. Old-fashioned omniscient storytelling spools out the tale of German immigrant Al Baach’s arrival in Keystone. Baach accompanies Vic Moon there because “there was money to be made and when the people see you they say ‘Get off your horse, come get you something to eat, and stay the night.’”
Upon his arrival, Al meets one of the story’s villains, Henry Trent, who sets Al up as a bartender in a saloon.
The novel’s main plot centers, not on Al, but on his middle son Abe, who becomes a supremely skilled card shark known as the Keystone Kid. At his side is the only woman he has ever loved, Goldie Toothman, whose relatives run a boardinghouse-turned-whorehouse. A woman who can handle herself in any situation, Goldie is a worthy companion for the likeable scamp.
From the start the father warns Abe not to get involved with Trent, a scoundrel who requires “monthly considerations” from every business in town. Because Al never receives the kind of wealth promised, he comes to believe Trent “bamboozled him right from the start.”
His son Abe, though, thinks Trent knows “the path to real money.” Crooked people get power and wealth; they are elected mayor like Trent. They become judges and police chiefs.
Thus the conflicts are set between the Haves and the Wanna-Haves in the poor section of Keystone known as Cinder Bottom, an area which got its name from the coke ash cinders drifting down from the mines. The decks are stacked against the working class who want to earn a decent wage.
As a confidence man, the determined young Abe gets into and out of one scrape after another, trying to charm and scam his way out of poverty.
While the tale’s middle drags a bit with backstory and setup, the last third leaves readers breathless, waiting to learn if Abe can pull off one more—and one more—and maybe even one more daring con. Can he walk away with wealth and still keep his family intact? Above all else, Abe values family. He will risk losing his dreams and even his life for them. He may not be an angel, but you gotta like the rascal for that reason alone.
Taylor’s gifts include an ear for capturing pitch-perfect dialect and creating a detail-rich setting from extensive research.
Born in Huntington, West Virginia, Glenn Taylor now lives in Morgantown where he teaches in the MFA program at West Virginia University. He is the author of two novels, The Marrowbone Marble Company and The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. The latter was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.