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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Appalachian Gothic

The tag line for Charles Dodd White's debut novel, Lambs of Men, reads, "The war comes home," yet the phrase doesn't quite do this complex, subtle novel justice. A better tag line would have been, "The war was here all along." And war is indeed at the heart of this short, but intense, story. It twines between the characters, holding them hostage, and binding them together in surprising ways.

White is primarily known as an Appalachian specialist, setting nearly all of his fiction in the vast, rich mountain region between New York and Georgia, and certainly the mountains and its environs play a distinct role in this drama. Not since Louis L'Amour has the physical environment of a world been so lovingly conjured. White spends pages describing in depth the trees and sun and clouds and mountains, and yet not once does it become tedious or unnecessary. These hills are characters in themselves, the birth mother of this story and the characters that populate it.

As for the plot of Lambs of Men, it's simple enough: Hiram Tobit, a young marine freshly home after the horrors of the first World War, finds the Appalachia he's come back to is not the same one he left. His mother has committed suicide and his father is a drunken hermit. Determined to outrun his past, Tobit takes a recruitment position in the insular mountain town of Cannon City and settles in to try to build a new life for himself, until his slowly unfolding domestic solitude is cut short by a knock at the door.

What follows is a road story and denouement of such sublime power and violence that the early pages spent ruminating on the horrors of war end up seeming like a bad dream. Tobit's story will take him from the recruiting office of Cannon City to an abandoned mountaintop hunting camp where a desperate father has done the unthinkable, where Hiram will come face to face with the very thing he'd been trying to get away from.

White's characters populate a world that is so large and yet so empty that the interiors of the mind become the jail cells these men lock themselves in. And the ways in which each of these prisoners reaches through the bars to touch one another becomes the central drama of the story.

On the one hand there is Hiram, whose rage at his father stems from a drunken accident and which propels him headlong into the glory and conflict of World War I. On the other there is Sloane, whose drunkenness and fire has robbed him of everyone he's ever loved. Both of these men are locked in their own minds, gnawing on the same bones, poking their heads into the world just long enough to verify that they're better off alone.

This all changes when Hiram's path converges with his father's and the two of them are forced to deal with the vast ocean under their mutual bridge.

Lambs of Men is not an easy book. Certainly the prose is beautiful and fluid and poetic, and it flows off the page and into your mind easily enough, but the themes, of loss and violence and parental love, are so thickly and complexly intertwined within these characters that scenes and dialogue live on long after White has unspooled his final phrase. These are universal themes, and the fact that the book is set primarily in 1920 only allows enough distance for the reader to realize how little things have changed since then. Fathers still love sons in difficult ways, violence is still the crucible by which boys become men, and sons still look to their fathers for which weapon to choose when the trials come. In that respect Lambs of Men follows in the same vein as books like The Road or For Whom the Bell Tolls, with its violent, crisp depiction of masculinity, yet Lambs never glorifies violence or shies away from showing the character's flaws. Violence just is, and flawed men find it their last resort.


Lambs of Men is published by Casperian Books in paperback. It runs 160 pages.
Charles Dodd White can be found at his website.

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