June Read of the Month: “Abraham Anyhow,” by Adam Van Winkle

Adam Van Winkle

Reviewed by William Bernhardt

I am particular about how Oklahoma is portrayed in fiction. Perhaps I’m unduly defensive, but at this point, having written more than almost thirty novels set in Oklahoma, in a variety of time periods, I think I’ve earned the right. I chafe when I hear editors, upon hearing that the novel takes place in Oklahoma, ask if it involves “cowboys and Indians.” I’ve listened to audiobook adaptions of my books in which the narrators give each character accents that sound like no one I’ve ever heard in my life (and I’m an Oklahoma native). Even my series character Ben Kincaid, who was raised in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Oklahoma City, has been dramatized sounding like someone from an amateur production of Streetcar Named Desire.

But happily, this does not occur in Adam Van Winkle’s splendid new novel, Abraham Anyhow. His ear for dialogue, and his insight into character, is just as strong as his dialogue. All three resonate with authenticity. His Oklahomans, mostly from Texoma, near the Oklahoma-Texas border, are the real deal. His characters come from more rural areas than I normally venture into in my fiction, but Van Winkle knows these people and brings them to life with honesty, accuracy, and a great deal of heart.

The protagonist of the novel, Abe Dyson, is a mechanic and tow-truck driver, pure Oklahoma salt of the earth. Abe, his clan, and his associates, may bring to some minds distant echoes of the Joads, another fictional Oklahoma clan. But where the Joads lost their property and headed west, Abe digs in deep and fights. His land is threatened by a local business tycoon who is well connected and knows which palms to grease. A new highway is coming in, and it will probably not surprise readers when they learn that Abe’s property is the sacrifice to be made in the name of progress and prosperity.

Fortunately, Abe is aided by the unexpected arrival of his adult son, Ike. Ike and Abe join forces and soon become a formidable source of opposition the big shots in town did not anticipate. For that matter, Abe and Ike also have to deal with a local family of felons and, as if that weren’t enough, a dognapping. Van Winkle’s characters are varied and eccentric, but never at the expense of truth. These are not the exaggerated characters of television sitcoms or movie comedies. This is a keen observer of humanity creating rich portraits while maintaining a narrative certain to keep readers captivated.

Attentive readers will immediately see the Biblical reverberations. The family patriarch is, after all, named Abraham, and his son is Isaac. Although they are fighting for their land, the land they hope to pass on to future generations of their clan, they are also fighting for family. Those familiar with Old Testament tales will not be surprised at the way their relationship, and the narrative itself, develops. Ultimately, the battle to save the property becomes the means by which Abe attempts to restore family ties, those knots that can be loosened but never severed, that are strengthened by shared conflict, that prove resilient even in the face of extreme adversity.

This is a beautiful novel, enhanced by Van Winkle’s spare and precise prose. The pages fly by, filled with evocative sentences and not a wasted word. This approach seems keenly appropriate to this tale. This is a book to be treasured and recommended, a natural for book clubs and anyone interested in authentic Oklahoma life, a book that should take its place on the shelf with John Steinbeck, Billie Letts, Rilla Askew, and a handful of others who have the supreme gift of revealing the realities about ourselves through stories.

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  1. I look forward to reading this!

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