The Coal Tattoo
By Silas House
(Algonquin, 336 pp., $24.95)
House appears 6 p.m. Oct. 25 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
Southern writers take on all sorts of topics, from race relations to interfamily rivalries. But one thing common to all is a central concern for placethey write about place as well as, or even better than, they write about people. And they tend to write about certain places. It's unlikely that anyone has done a systematic study of the phenomenon, but one could safely wager that Mississippi and southern Louisiana set the stage for 10 novels each time central Georgia sets the stage for one.
Which may explain why, after reading a shelf's worth of stories set in and around Oxford, it's a real pleasure to pick up a book by Silas House. A native and current resident of Appalachian Kentucky, House writes glittering prose about his home region and the people who inhabit it, primarily coal miners, loggers and their families. (House often reuses character names from book to book; though different people in different settings, they subtly reinforce the theme of community that runs through his work). The reigning bard of Appalachia, House is determined to shed light on a forgotten part of the country. But what makes House appealing isn't just his work's unique setting. His literary craftsmanship and well-wrought characters foreshadow the emergence of a master novelist. And while his latest work, The Coal Tattoo, is not his best effort, it won't be long before House makes the short list of great contemporary Southern writers.
The Coal Tattoo centers around Easter and Anneth, two sisters growing up in 1960s eastern Kentucky. Their father died in a mine collapse; their mother hanged herself soon after, leaving the girls to their grandmother and extended familythough, as it soon becomes clear, they rely more on each other than anyone else. As a result of their early tragedy, the sisters have developed in almost comically opposite directions: Anneth is a hell-raiser, Easter a Pentecostal. Anneth runs off to Nashville with her musician beau but comes back when she can't stand being away from Easter; her sister, in the meantime, toys with sin (well, maybe just a honky-tonk jukebox) and her new husband, only to reel back when her son is delivered still-born, as if a warning from God.
The rest of the story is about how Anneth and Easter reconcile their different personalities, knowing that, however large they might be, the two sisters depend on each other for survival. There is a twist, thoughAnneth's second husband is the scion of a mining company, which turns out to own the rights to mine the mountain behind the sisters' home. This being the mid-'60s, traditional coal mines were running dry, and companies were turning to strip mining instead. Strip mining, of course, creates environmental wastelands, and the confrontation between the sisters and the company provides momentum for the book's final chapters.
House, like many of his contemporaries, is not an original writer; his story lines and scenes tend to be somewhat predictable. But there are other measures of literary aptitude than good plots, and like that of his fellow Southerners William Gay and Tom Franklin, the strength of House's writing lies in his ability to craft tight, moving sentences that electrify even the most foreseeable narrative turns. And he has a writerly eye for the tiniest detail: "Although he bathed up at the mine, she could still taste coal on his lips," he writes about Anneth's first husband.
The problem with The Coal Tattoo is that, having created compelling characters around a central emotional tension, House doesn't seem to know what to do with them. Like the men who fill in the background of the novel, House is a miner, but he can't quite locate the book's emotional lode. Uncharacteristic for House, he tells more often than he shows, and he injects motivations where convenient without allowing them to emerge on their own. Anneth leaves Matthew, her first husband, because she misses home; later, when she starts to doubt her second marriage, House writes that "[s]he was never satisfied. Matthew had been completely selfless and devoted himself to her and she had lost respect for him because of it." This is news to the reader, because that wasn't her motivation 100 pages before. Anneth finally realizes that the love she's looking for is there in her sister's marriage, but Easter's marriage is drawn so one-dimensionally that it's hard to understand what Anneth sees in it.
That said, the book would have been stronger had House kept his focus on Anneth and Easter. But halfway through he seems to lose confidence in their ability to carry the story, and so introduces Liam, Anneth's second husband, and his father's mining company. Love of a land beset by destructive outside forces is a compelling theme, but one that feels inserted, rather than essential. The Coal Tattoo has a chance to be about many different kinds of lovefamilial, matrimonial, sexual, communalbut the task ultimately proves too many balls for House to juggle effectively. By melding the two plot lines, House loses control of both, and the novel ends in a muddled, saccharine denouement.
There is, however, a very promising element to House's decision to end the story on a happy note. Violence is an unavoidable element in literature, as in life. But many contemporary Southern novelists are addicted to the stuff. Even the best writers, such as Gay, Franklin and Tim Gautreaux, can't seem to end a novel without a grisly gun battle. Nihilism for nihilism's sake runs rampant through their work. Worse, their dutiful reliance on gore points to a debased notion of Southern literature, namely that just like a strong sense of place, a good Southern novel must abound in death. Even House's previous novels had similar violent tendencies. But The Coal Tattoo is differentthough flawed, it at least refuses to regard violence as a necessary plot element. No one gets shot, no one gets knifed, and it is a better book because of it. House may still have some growing to do as a novelist, but his craftsmanship and independence from literary fads are evidence that he is a novelist with real promise.
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