“Ghosting” by Kirby Gann

Review by Tina Egnoski

In Kirby Gann’s new book, Ghosting, Kentucky is raw-edged, poverty-stricken and violent.  It is also a place of physical beauty and, for some, of personal redemption.

The protagonist James Cole Prather, known as Cole, is twenty-three and at loose ends.  He lives with his mother Lyda, an addict.  His half-brother Fleece Skaggs, a drug runner for the local kingpin, has gone missing.  Cole’s in love with Fleece’s ex-girlfriend.  He works construction part-time for his uncle, but dreams of being an underwater welder: if only he had the money to get his scuba license and buy the necessary equipment.

Cole has recently returned to his hometown of Lake Holloway, after being banished at twelve to live with an aunt and uncle to get him away from the violence of “the lake.”  There are ghosts all over town and he encounters them daily.  He can’t get the image of the murder he witnessed at a young age out of his mind.  He can’t stop reviewing the conversations he had with his brother that may or may not point to answers in Fleece’s disappearance.  He can’t escape the specter of Mister Lawrence Greuel.  Greuel is everywhere, in the past and the present.  Described as the “man to see about pot and pills and any other sin on spec,” Greuel’s in charge of the drug trade in Pirtle County.  He employed Fleece.  He supplies drugs to Lyda.  He may have been the man who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Fleece’s father, the murder Cole witnessed so long ago.  He is also dying “from some strange sickness, goggle eyes awry in a fist of a sweating head.  He had a face as rutted and pocked as barnwood.”

The one bright spot in Cole’s life is Elizabeth “Shady” Beck, Fleece’s ex.  She’s not a “laker.”  She grew up in nearby Laurel Estates and her father is doctor.  She’s home from a failed semester at college, trying to figure out her next move.  Her need for “chemical aid” closes the economic and social gap between Cole and her.  To satisfy that need they turn to Greuel.  In between pot buys, Shady is willing to listen to Cole talk about his brother and his desire to leave Lake Holloway.  It’s Shady who begs Cole to stop searching for the answer to the question that lies at the very heart of this story:  Did Fleece run-off with Greuel’s high-quality stash or was he killed by Greuel?  But Cole knows that the only way to discover the truth is to follow in his brother’s footsteps and join Greuel’s drug enterprise.

Kirby Gann, author of two previous novels, The Barbarian Parade and Our Napoleon, is a contemporary voice in the Southern tradition.  He sets this literary thriller in the rural Kentucky of the late 1990’s.  The novel is imaginative and expertly rendered.  The lyrical prose stands in high contrast to the gritty scenes of drug deals and torture.  While Cole is the main character, the story is told from multiple perspectives.  We follow Cole’s mother Lyda to the very bottom of a drug-induced stupor.  We listen to the impassioned sermon of a former junkie turned preacher.  We sit with Erly Diddle on sentry duty for Greuel while he reads mysteries and waxes poetic about the books he wants to write.  We’re introduced Arley Noe and the infamous “toolbox.”  When Noe calls for the toolbox to be brought in from the truck, you know the rip hammer and hawks-bill snips are not so he can do a little home repair.

By giving voice to these minor characters, Gann creates a full portrait of a community riddled by drugs and economic hardship, and at the same time struggling to find a spiritual foothold.  Even the Appalachian landscape is a character, carrying wild beauty and the weight of the past, as in this passage:

Sometimes—when [Cole] was much younger and when his mother had more energy and clarity—they used to take long walks through the woods, not quite losing themselves in its hidden cavities and hollows, occasionally happening upon a secluded sward of grass that appeared to have no reason to be empty of trees.  They would circle Lake Holloway and his mother might step out of her shoes and roll up her cuffs to tramps into the sheltered corners overgrown with rushes and shush the croaking psalms chanted by frogs, where she might laugh like a woman without a care, striking out at the water’s surface with an elegantly curved foot, the ruby polish fresh on her nails.

Cole’s journey deep inside the world of drugs takes him to some unexpected places and brings him face-to-face with some unexpected allies.  Along the way, he discovers the strength to break free from the ghosts of his past.

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