Thursday, November 22, 2007

Davis Grubb

Greg Leatherman recommended an author to me whom I had somehow missed in all my readings: Davis Grubb. His name had been mentioned to me in the past, but the recommendation did not stick until Greg made me aware of him.

Grubb grew up in Moundsville and Clarksburg during the '30s, a child of misfortunes both in his family and in his Appalachian homeland. Fools' Parade is a novel of three newly released convicts from the West Virginia penitentiary. Grub calls the town Glory, but it is obviously Moundsville. All of the other geographic references are authentic: Parkersburg, Wetzel County, even the "Chapline Street lawyers" who get a young hitman out of the Prunytown juvenile detention center. There are three places in West Virginia you don't want to go: Moundsville (penitentiary), Prunytown (juvenile prison), and Weston (state mental hospital).

Fools' Parade is good but not great. His action can move ploddingly at times and he can beat you over the head with some symbols (Johnny Jesus is one character's name). But every time I feel the story takes too wide a turn toward the maudlin or pedantic, he throws in a detail or a description or a plot twist that reels me back in. He is by no means overappreciated-- he probably gets the attention he deserves. His first novel was made into a film (Night of the Hunter), and the edition I am reading is a 2001 reprint. So people are reading and appreciating him still, and this is good.

Grub is a good writer, and a great writer if you are from the Ohio Valley near Wheeling. His descriptions are often wonderful-- colorful and bordering on the baroque, but keeping it grounded in characters and landscapes decorated with scars and wounds quite visible. Here is one of my favorite passages. It describes what one of the three convicts observes about a freight car passing, a freight car of 1935, the depths of the Great Depression:

"On a track level beneath their own and near the river's shore moved a freight train at a faster speed then theirs. Yet it seemed to stretch endlessly down into the willowed distances and its smoke, in the humidity of the sundown, lay like a ragged pall about its interminable chain of shabby hopper cars, gondolas, flats, wellcars, and boxcars, and then more hoppers and most of them empty of coal but full of men in haphazard and clinging abundance. At first glance there appeared to be a casual festivity about this straggling horde. Those who could not find space in the iron-walled wellcars or inside the boxcars clung to the boxcar hardware or perched on top behind the brakeman's wheel, their gray faces fixed northward toward something. Even the eyes which stared beneath the broken cloth brims or snap-brim caps seemed gray, gray as the face flesh, which was itself gray as the steel of that despairing train. In that distance the train looked like a great iron snake covered with ticks, and the sluggish chuff of its clanging, swaying progress seemed as if it had ong since resigned to serving its body as host to these miles of clustered parasites. They might have been a citizen's army on its roistering way to an unwelcome battle, for there was nothing half so determined in their faces as there was in the desperate enterprise of their way of travel." (32)

Thanks Greg Leatherman. Thanks WVU Library for holding it on your shelves.

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