Another exciting debut novel is out, this one entitled The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, and is written by Christopher Scotton. It’s very much akin to Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek, which was listed on my best fiction of the year list for 2014. Scotton is a great story teller, and his novel is very much in the tradition of American narrative fiction, which we see being revived and celebrated with admirable frequency amongst younger writers across the world.
The narrator, Kevin, whom I take to be some version of the writer himself when an adolescent, has recently witnessed the horrifying death of his little brother, and is sent with his agonized mother to live with her father for one summer in Medgar, Kentucky, which is Appalachian coal country. Kevin meets a half wild child of the hollows, Buzzy, and the novel revolves around their budding friendship, and what will be a summer of adventure, rites of passage from boyhood into adolescence and into manhood, unexpected violence, and one of the finest novels about friendship between two boys from utterly different backgrounds who bond over life in the woods, and a community much at odds over mountaintop removal (wherein tops of mountains are simply blown off to get to the coal right underneath, almost the opposite of fracking). Kevin’s grandfather, the magnificently rendered Pops, becomes a role model and hero to both boys, as he takes them camping deep into Kentucky hill country, past the house and land where he grew up, where they will live off the land, and taught survival skills by the older man. Buzzy already possesses a number of these, but the novel is very old fashioned, and most pleasantly so, in how it depicts the changing generations and the passing on of skills ranging from building fires, to fishing well, to knowing what wild herbs can be used for both cooking and medicinal purposes. These sections of the novel are entirely riveting, and people of both genders and all backgrounds will find them so, which is a great strength of Scotton’s. The writer’s obvious love of the land about which he writes is often shockingly beautiful, much like another younger American novelist’s, Josh Weil’s, who writes about the land where Virginia and West Virginia meet. Both men write in the tradition of American Romanticism, and it’s heartening and surprising to see these traditions refreshed and continued. Scotton is able to present the two boys and grandfather without a single macho moment, and the affection amongst the three are manifestations of the new American male writer, gentler, kinder, and far more introspective than, say, the Hemingways who proceeded them. This is an important change in American sensibility, and may be attributed to feminism, and different expectations of American men.
A hate crime is a subplot of the novel: two gay men, one a former athlete, and the other a hometown man who opens a hairdressing shop, have been living together for a long time, without notice, or trouble. But the latter comes in the form of a frighteningly angry teenaged boy, whose sexuality, we will learn, is at best, ambiguous and ambivalent. The owner of the hair salon is brutally murdered, and how Pops helps lead the men of this town away from the private life, and back to the decency of him as a neighbor and friend, shows us what leadership can do in any environment, another lesson for these two boys. Scotton pulls all this off with great dignity and complexity, so that the crime and its aftermath in no way come across as an overlay of contemporary ideology on rural America, and its often macho remnants. Scotton does not patronize his characters.
The other theme involves the rape of the land, and whether the good citizens of Medgar will sell their land for more mountaintop removal to keep jobs, or whether they will understand that their very short term gain will ultimately be their total loss. Generations of these families have lived and interacted together, so that the owner of the mines is well known in the town. The resolution of this issue is almost funny, and we cannot help but allow Scotton his pleasure in ridding the town of this presumptive evil landowner. A few secondary characters, mainly men who hang out over coffee in town, also make cameo appearances in the novel, and every one of them represents slightly different aspects of life in Medgar. They are well delineated, and Scotton is able to deal with issues of ageing, retirement, land use, and, ultimately of memory itself, in creating this very first rate novel. When Kevin and Buzzy, long grown, and Kevin long gone from Medgar, re-meet at a funeral, we are aware that the two men have nothing in common, but their memories of this one special summer where they both began to grow up, and Scotton handles their last encounter together with such tender dignity, that the novel ends veering into masterpiece status.