Published by Harper Collins on September 8th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Gothic, Noir
Format: Print ARC
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One story my grandfather told me about his days as a sandhog had seemed a tall tale, even to a kid, but later I’d found out it was true. In the years before electricity, what light burned inside the underwater caissons came from candles. At the greatest depths, the pressure was such that the candles wouldn’t blow out. The flame would sail off the wick, ricochet around the metal, then resettle on the wick. What my grandfather hadn’t told me was that sometimes cables broke and a man would be trapped down there. He’d know the candle was burning up oxygen, and he’d know the flame would not go out, but he’d keep blowing anyway, even with his last breaths, still hoping against hope that, somehow, it might. (Les)
I received this uncorrected proof as part of Powell’s Indiespensable box this quarter. The story alternates between the perspectives of Les, a retiring sheriff, and his on-and-off-again lady friend Becky, a park superintendent with a dark past. Les has a few loose ends to tie up in the last couple of weeks before his retirement. The mystery of a poisoned trout stream is the case that dominates most of his remaining time. It is a complicated case for Les because the main suspect is Gerald, an elderly man with whom Becky has a deep bond.
This is a quiet, slow-moving novel, that suddenly picks up the pace in the second half. The first part of the book is more of a character story, but it becomes a standard whodunit halfway through when the river is poisoned. I greatly preferred Les’s chapters over Becky’s. Most of her chapters are poetic nature descriptions or flashbacks into her traumatic past. I never really felt like I got a full grasp of her character. The character background stories (Becky with the school shooting and ecoterrorist ex-boyfriend and Les’s depressed ex-wife) were threads that weren’t completely weaved in and it left me wanting more or even less. I know that the ecoterrorist boyfriend was meant to make the reader and Les doubt Becky as a great judge of character, but I didn’t fully get the school shooting connection. It explained her eccentricities, but her strangeness wasn’t really integral to the story.
I didn’t fully grasp the deep connection between Gerald and Becky. I think he may have reminded her of her grandparents, which made her feel a sense of duty towards him. I don’t think it was really fully explored or connected. We only see Gerald through the eyes of Les and Becky, but I think he was really well-drawn as as strong, stoic man who has watched the world leave him behind.
“That gun was aimed at you a full minute,” Jarvis told me later. Your life flashes before you, I’ve always heard, but it hadn’t for me. It was as if I stood in the corner, not so much observing as performing a methodical self-autopsy, not of my body but of my life. I had not been frightened. Instead, I’d felt a calm clarity. Everything inside me, including my heart, seemed suspended, except one thought. What will you miss? A full minute and I’d had no answer. Then the gun was lowered, and I slowly, reluctantly, came back into myself. (Les)
Les is a conflicted, flawed person and I felt that he was more well-developed than Becky. Les’s main motivation is to set things right before his retirement and to finally be able to answer the question “In the very core of my being, who am I?” in a satisfactory way.
Like the pot bribes, Jarvis was letting me know things would be different with him in charge. That was a good thing, but he would learn in time that a sheriff could bend the law for no other reason than what was law and what was right sometimes differed. (Les)
The writing itself is very lovely to read. I think it is a credit to the author that I didn’t think “Wait, what is this even about?”, until I suddenly noticed half of the pages were in my left hand! I really liked the bleak setting and Ron Rash is truly a master at creating the atmosphere of Appalachia. I liked the contrast of the ugliness of man against the serene beauty of nature. The parts about methheads and the river poisoning were the strongest parts for me. The mystery elements were tied up in a satisfying way.
I loved the writing and the setting, so I would definitely read another book by this author! I did like this one, it just isn’t one of my favorites.
Above me that night tiny lights brightened and dimmed, brightened and dimmed. Photinus carolinus. Fireflies synchronized to make a single meadow-wide flash, then all dark between. Like being inside the earth’s pulsing heart. I’d slowed my blood-beat to that rhythm. So much in the world that night. (Becky)