Reviewed by Sam Slaughter
There is no need to fear the reaper here. In Mark Powell’s fourth novel, the author who has been called one of the best Appalachian writers of his generation proves that his home turf is not the only place he can write about.
The Sheltering is a story of a drone pilot (the drones are named Reapers), Luther Redding, his wife Pamela and their daughters Katie and Lucy, as they struggle to find meaning in the population-dense yet culturally-desolate Central Florida landscape. At the same time, readers follow brothers Bobby and Donny Rosen after the release of Donny from jail. Bobby, a war veteran, is haunted by the deaths of two boys close to him—one a young boxer his brother killed in the ring and another a young boy whom he shot while in Sadr City on patrol. He convinces himself that these deaths, and the dissolution of his marriage, release him from any obligations he has in Florida. He then joins Donny and a girl his brother meets, Kristen, on a cross-country trip that, ultimately, ends in destruction. Along the way they stop in New Orleans and Arizona, among other places, while his brother pawns off drugs and implicates his two traveling companions in various drug-fueled deeds. In the end, what seem like two completely separate narratives are zipped together with incredible efficiency and, from there, the finale is inevitable and readers are rocketed into the light that every single one of Powell’s characters seeks.
In The Sheltering Powell again examines what it means to find salvation in light. His characters, struggling to make sense of the choices they’ve made, seek the peace that comes from the light. In his previous work, The Dark Corner, the protagonist searches desperately for the light that will save him from the alcoholism that grips him just as tightly as the memories of his time in the Gulf. Following the same trails as TDC, too, Powell utilizes the moral ambiguity of participating in military exercises to push his characters into ever-deepening wells of self-loathing and confusion.
The subtle force of Powell’s prose is the most effective weapon in The Sheltering. For much of the novel, readers circle the characters like a reaper, watching. Waiting. You’re able to see everything that goes on, heat sensors picking up the intricacies and turmoil that the characters are experiencing. Everything is there. Alcoholism, depression, spiritual upheaval, divorce. We see it all and we catalogue it all. These terrible things are happening. But the time isn’t right, we need to stay aloft, continue circling, and continue watching. Then, in the time it would take Redding to simply flick the switch to engage the reaper’s target, the force of what Powell does hits home. At that point, in a few lines delivered simply by the secondary character, a Buddhist monk named Brother Vin, the world Powell creates explodes in light. It is too late to escape what has happened. Instead, readers are left to experience the illumination and are invited to see the aftermath. You as a reader don’t have a choice and frankly, at that point there is nowhere else to go. Powell works hard to make sure you want to see the beautiful destruction he’s created. In that moment, nothing else matters but the chaos set before you.
While you may feel that you are up in the reaper, or piloting it remotely, you also get a feeling that you are the one being watched while reading The Sheltering. There is an overwhelmingly haunting quality to Powell’s novel that can often leave the reader unsettled. Before the women of the Redding family find out about Luther’s accident, he visits them in their own private ways. Lucy, for her part, is reminded most of what her father smelled like. Powell writes, “The smell was almost overwhelming, as if she were standing in his bathroom while he shaved…The night should have smelled of dying flowers, of coming rain, of passing cars, It should have smelled of a thousand things but what she smelled was her father.” Moments like this and others scattered throughout the novel leave the reader wondering what power may be watching them watch these characters. Powell’s version of a haunting is the furthest thing from hokey Ghost of Christmas past apparitions. Instead, these visions are spurred by mental instability and weakness.
When you get to the end, it is easy to see that The Sheltering is Powell’s best novel to date. The subtleties he imbues into his characters make for an engaging read that, once you start, is hard to stop. The smoothness of prose proves that Powell knows what he is doing. There is no doubt about it, Powell has established himself as a voice not only of Appalachia, but of all contemporary American literature.
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