The Sun Was Bad
When I recommended Rusty Barnes’ debut novel, Reckoning, to a friend who doesn’t read much contemporary fiction, he shrugged and said “No man, I don’t want to read about Appalachia.”
Put your horror at this aside; forget for a moment that the best reading is that which cultivates our sympathy for the unknown and re-introduces us to what we’d only thought we knew, acquaints us with the far-flung selves in ourselves. Forget all that and know this: Reckoning is a touching, cliff-hanging, and chilling novel both for people who want to read about Appalachia and for those who don’t.
In this and in so many other ways Reckoning is a both/and novel. It’s both mainstream and subversive, both suspenseful and insightful, both specific to its location and catholic in its appeal—if you don’t see part of yourself in young Richard and young Katie then you either don’t know yourself very well or you haven’t been young.
Appalachia is a geographical weasel-word; you could just as easily use it to describe a view of the Erie Canal as you could southern Mississippi. Reckoning takes place in its northern reaches: the border of New York and Pennsylvania an hour west of Binghamton, in the author’s own hometown of Mosherville, Pennsylvania.
There we meet Richard, a lonely and uncertain boy in the seventh grade. His life is adrift: there are no kids his age in his neighborhood; he can’t fix an engine like his dad can; “he’d puked the first time his dad showed him how to skin a deer. That didn’t win him any points.” This summer he’s baling hay and picking off woodchucks at Old Man Thompson’s farm, a rocky stretch that had belonged to his own family not long before. His grandfather lost it in the Depression, and Richard’s dad:
never recovered, never found a spot to call his own, and had spent his life working a series of dead-end jobs in the country—driving a skidder, long-haul trucking, mechanic, hired man—never really being willing to move away, and getting sadder, older, and madder.
It’s one of those places full of folks “a recent president said cling to their guns and God,” a place where “young was sweet, old was bitter.”
Enter Katie Neary, a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking city kid who has just moved to town with her mother—the only new people for miles. She and Richard run into each other in Chapter 2, which is awkward for Richard as he’s only just caught her mother, Mrs. Neary, screwing Old Man Thompson’s jackass of a son Lyle behind a hedgerow in Chapter 1. Lyle warns him, repeatedly, to stay away from both mother and daughter, but Richard, though he doesn’t know it yet, is falling in love.
Katie shocks him by talking fondly of the mountains and the woods—there’s none of that greenness or openness in the city. She teases him, asks him if he’s “interested.” He tries to act macho, says he’s always interested. “That’s too bad,” Katie says, her eyes flashing, “I think we ought to be friends only.”
She gets stuck in his head, though, and he finds himself wandering downtown in the evenings to see if she’ll be around, not that there’s much town to speak of:
Just Shepherd’s store, the mechanics’ across the way, the Bible church and the school, which only held five grades now. He had been the last of the sixth-graders to go to that school. Now they shipped the township kids over forty minutes away to Troy.
One night he runs into Katie and her friend Dex hanging out by the store. They invite him to go walking up the creek to smoke, then for a spontaneous swim in the “pee-warm” water. Barnes’ narration of such scenes—the kids shyly stripping down to their underwear to swim, Richard’s thoughts afloat, the sinister turn at the end—is characteristic of Reckoning. Every moment feels lived, weighted with meaning, but the prose itself is nearly weightless:
“Probably generations of kids pissed in this creek.” Katie pulled herself out of the water and onto the rocks. Her underwear clung tightly to her ass.
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Richard said. “So you won’t be the first.” Katie gave him the bird, and he flipped onto his back to float.
“You better get back in the water,” Dex said. “The Pervert can’t keep his eyes off your boobs.”
“I’m no pervert.” Richard bumped into the rocks at the shallow end, and pulled himself up into a sitting position.
“You sure do a good imitation of one.” Dex stepped out of the water, staggering a bit on the slick rock. “I’m going to cover myself up before he looks at me, yo.” Richard didn’t quite know what to do. Katie stood up and screamed, pointing up the stream.
“What?” Richard couldn’t see what she pointed at, so he walked upstream a little. He saw the blonde hair first, and waving in the water, a woman’s head. Dex followed behind him.
“Holy shit,” Dex said. As Richard got closer he saw the woman was completely naked, and her wrists and arms were red with sunburn and scars.
They fish her out of the stream. Her name is Misty. She’s bloodied but still alive, and so the kids help her to Mrs. Neary’s. It turns out she and Mrs. Neary already know one another, though Richard and Katie can’t figure how. She was obviously hit on the head and thrown in the water, but she clams up about why. First she says her boyfriend did it because she knew a secret; then she says that wasn’t true. Finally it turns out Misty and Mrs. Neary were turning tricks a few towns away and ran into some evil business. Lyle Thompson is involved somehow, and that involvement becomes more clear, and more sinister, when he repeatedly shows up at the Neary’s to threaten and intimidate the women and the kids.
Meanwhile, Richard’s trying to get his head around sex. He’s hot for Misty—a good-time girl if ever one there was—but there’s something happening with Katie too. She takes him into the hills, nonchalantly hands him a beer, and lays a tarp down on the soft pine needles. He doesn’t know what to say or how to be.
He’s anxious to protect the women he’s grown to admire, but the whole town seems to know a secret it won’t tell. There is nasty intrigue in the air, the kind of intrigue without which “he knew already … families and small towns wouldn’t survive.” Where does Lyle get all that money he’s flashing around? And why does Misty’s story keep changing? “She had three things going on in her face at any one time, he felt: the thing she actually thought, the thing she ought to say, and what she actually might do.”
Like Huck Finn, Richard “wanted to do the right thing, even if it was wrong.” Like any number of protagonists in boy’s-own books, he stakes out the sinister barn, breaks in to look for clues. As in any number of rural bildungsromans, he struggles between some kind of half-imagined heroism and the rut of life around him. Mrs. Neary and Misty throw parties filled with beer and fucking, and for a short while it’s a high time. But Barnes has drawn both Katie and Richard with such care by now that each reckless scene makes for a harrowing read. Is this all their lives will turn out to be? Screwing around and getting wasted, working dead-end jobs, letting the small town’s shared secrets deaden them?
Most bestsellers are comedies, in the sense that at the very moment where events have spiraled nearly out of control (Kolt Raynor hangs from the skyscraper’s window while sinister villains cackle and stomp his fingertips), the hero somehow prevails, evil is purged, harmony asserted. Only toward the end of Reckoning do we come to see this kind of ending is not guaranteed us. For all the sweetness and fun of the preceding two hundred pages, Richard and Katie turn out to be far too young for what they discover, and what comes for them. Consequently, unlike in most thrillers, even the better titles in the school of Country Noir, as Court Merrigan recently dubbed it, Reckoning is not a book that casually puts us aside when it’s finished with us. It spooks us and we stay spooked. Days after closing the covers, I found myself uneasily turning over what had happened, haunted by it.
Above I called Reckoning a both/and novel. Though I grew up far from Appalachia, we’ve all had experience with towns where, as Richard puts it to himself: “What to look forward to around here? Everyone hit the fucking highway and was gone.” We’ve all been awkwardly young and in love, lived those years when the mere glimpse of a bare midriff can cause your palms to sweat and your speech to stop in your throat, when everyone seems wounded by their own youth, both more scared and seemingly more daring than they’ll ever be again. And: Barnes’ novel doesn’t simply fix you for nostalgia, it also makes youth new: makes it more precarious than we’d remembered it. None of the characters in Reckoning let slip any clichés about the promise of a new generation. The future is not our oyster— it is after us.
But Reckoning is no mere thing of darkness. It moves at the clip of a potboiler and will keep you up turning pages until you can hear the birds singing outside. What so many advocates of innovative prose (as though all good prose weren’t innovative) fail to understand is that when suspense is written expertly, with feeling and mindfulness, almost nothing is better. Reckoning shows us a good time but doesn’t chicken out at the end. We pay for our ticket.
Reckoning is not only the first novel published by Buffalo’s Sunnyoutside press, it’s also Rusty Barnes’ first novel, following several collections of poetry and short fiction. It’s customary to talk of ‘promise’ and ‘expectations’ when reviewing a novelist’s first at-bat but such sententiousness seems ill-suited here. Reckoning is not a promise but a fulfillment, and Rusty Barnes is a major writer at the height of his powers.
John Cotter is an editor at Open Letters Monthly.