“Trampoline: An Illustrated Novel,” by Robert Gipe

Robert Gipe

Reviewed by Phyllis Wilson Moore

Back in 2015 I received an advanced copy of Robert Gipe’s novel Trampoline and proceeded to read it. The author, Robert Gipe, was new to me and the first-person story featured some of his line drawings scattered in appropriate places. They were different.

I’m not a fan of illustrations in fiction, but when the protagonist, nearly six-feet-tall Misty Dawn Jewell, spoke to me from the page, I immediately recognized her. She is many of the girls I taught at a local high school. She does not fit in. She knows it.

Sort of a Goth, Dawn drinks booze in the school’s parking lot, smokes pot with her mother, gets into physical fights with other kids, breaks her brother’s rib, and dresses wacky. She is intelligent, the kind of kid you copy off of in Latin (and she would let you). In other words, she shows all the signs of being a gifted outsider in need of understanding and a bath.

Dawn lives up some hollow and comes from a (what else) coal mining family. The hollow is home to the whole tribe of Jewels and lots of single-wide trailers. A close-knit group, they ride 4 wheelers, let unlicensed kids drive cars, own junk trucks, drink alcohol, get zonked on oxycodone, smoke pot, love dogs, have road rage and dangerous escapades. They like their old-time religion, a good fist fight, and a romp on a trampoline. I’m surprised no one goes mudding.

Does this sound more than a little stereotypical? Most of the men in Dawn’s family are up to no good. One makes moonshine and fifteen-year-old Dawn sells it. Few are employed. They don’t abstain from anything. Many of my personal Appalachian reading pet peeves surfaced in this novel: fundamentalist churches, pipe-smoking women, moonshine-making men, mamaws and mommas. This novel’s mamaw “doesn’t threaten violence. She commits it.” I slogged on hoping the author did not add incest and snakehandlers to the mix.

Someone puts broken glass in the kindly activist neighbor’s dog’s food while at least two locals make extra money by blowing up the mountains at night using an illegal amount of dynamite. I cringed. Eventually the grit and coal got under my skin. I liked the language and the drawings but the driving accidents, drug escapades, and number of family members grew wearisome. I gave the book away.

Before I could say Twilight Dawn, the novel won the highly respected Weatherford Award in fiction. Authors I respect wrote glowing reviews. Some called it poignant, elegant, innovative, hilarious, groundbreaking. I bought another copy.

In the novel, there are things to like. Gipe writes with humor and authenticity. He turns many a beautiful phrase such as one by the winner of a fight between two school girls. The winner confesses it was an easy fight and no fun. It was “like stomping a baby bird.”  Say, what?

Gipe captures aspects of some “hollow” cultures. He does not get it wrong, he just overdoes it and then keeps on keeping on. Perhaps he is too honest. Perhaps he writes too well. Perhaps.

The novel has few characters with either a job or an education. One of the reliable ones is Mamaw Cora, the former school nurse grandmother. She’s a free-thinking, pipe-smoking, environmental activist. Her husband, Huston, once a photographer, lives in a separate house and drinks too much. Dawn lives with her Mamaw and occasionally smokes Mamaw’s pipe. She relies on both grandparents.

Patricia, Mamaw’s daughter and Dawn’s mother, is a young widow. Her husband’s accidental death in a mining accident threw her off balance. Now she steals from her family, sleeps around, and is a rail thin, shabby accident-waiting-to-happen. She smokes pot with Dawn, allows her to drink alcohol, and takes her money. Son Albert lives with Patricia at the home of an uncle (an uncle with benefits). Albert goes to school only to sell pot.

In Canard (how’s that for a name) County, Kentucky, the residents love their land and their numerous kin.  Except for Mamaw, most of them take care of neither. In the past a few relatives escaped: one to Michigan, one to Ohio, and the other to Tennessee. But the hollow is still home to a herd of Jewells. It takes considerable effort to remember who does what to whom as there are forty named characters including Hubert, Colbert, Filbert, Fred, Preston, Denny, Duane, Curtis, Verna, Genevieve. That’s not counting the ones from Michigan and Ohio or the hippies in Tennessee.

Canard County gets on my nerves. Seriously. Relatives file protective orders and restraint orders on each other to ensure a fracas-free Thanksgiving dinner. Up their hollow, it is difficult to find enough peaceful days to hang Christmas lights on their trailers. Presents are scarce. Jobs are scarce. The water is polluted. There is no good restaurant; a filling station does sell beer, pork rinds, and sandwiches. Canard has a Chinese restaurant, a doughnut shop, one large retail employer, some dollar stores, and a fundamentalist church boasting an indoor baptismal pool and some gun-toting, hot-head members.

I can’t say I don’t know areas like the one in the novel. I can’t say I don’t know people like those in the novel. Hell, I have relatives like some of these folks. But I’ve also read too many similar novels. My life has been spent in four Appalachian county seats, each with a college. My Appalachia exists. We have other stories.

According to the internet, some colleges and universities teach this novel, including West Virginia University. I’m sure it generates discussion. Do the students label and count the number of stereotypes, or calculate the miles driven before an accident? Maybe they discuss how often a character is out of control or how many cars and trucks are wrecked? They will get an up-close and personal look at the ramifications of drug abuse.

Mr. Gipe, an innovative writer with an original voice, tells a tale of a shaky and crumbling community, a community in crisis. He infuses the story with humor and activism; this first novel earned him the admiration of many of his peers.

Click here to purchase this book:

Leave a Reply