The Name of the Nearest River by Alex Taylor

Posted: August 3, 2010 in Book Reviews
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The title of Alex Taylor’s debut collection, The Name of the Nearest River, refers to a young man’s desire to copulate with his friend’s sister until she screams.  He doesn’t admit this desire to himself, however, until he and this friend are searching the Gasping River for a used car salesman, thought to be dead, who swindled and humiliated the sister.  They hope to find the car salesman before search and rescue teams so they can avenge the sister’s honor.  When they find the salesman’s body, their reaction is puzzling, yet it makes sense to who they are as people.

Set in Kentucky, these stories follow the lives of the lower class—people who have little money and live according to their own unwritten laws.  The characters in these stories are a product of circumstance and their environment.  In some cases, the places they live offer little and the people are forced to create excitement or even distraction, such as teens who glue themselves to a police scanner, driving to the sites where action takes places so they can gawk.

Or the elderly woman, a caretaker for the working class men in her life, who just wants to get out of the house where her husband’s on his deathbed.  When she takes it upon herself to get out, she becomes lost, unfamiliar with the land around her, as well as her own boys.  A neighbor comes to her rescue, offering her a lift on his four-wheeler, and she oversteps her bounds while riding her streak of newly found adventure.  But these characters are also motivated by loss, or in some cases, the fear of loss.  They seek vengeance from those who have wronged them or their loved ones because they’re “quick to anger and slow to forget.”

“The Evening Part of Daylight” starts with a punch.  Literally.  Lustus punches his bride-to-be, Loreesa, on their wedding day after she pokes fun of the boutonniere he made from a flower he grew.  Violence is his immediate and irrational reaction.  The wedding guests—preoccupied at the time of the punch, trying to catch a tagged catfish for cash—hear of what happened and immediately respond with the threat of more violence.  Lustus can’t help feeling “a kind of misty loneliness” when he stands before a mass of people wanting his blood and carrying with them “a feeling of moss and old ways.”

One of Taylor’s many strong suits lies in his ability to characterize.  He shows his readers distinctions in social class when his characters aren’t completely aware of them.  A 12-year-old boy named Luke has never known what life is like above the poverty line in the story “The Coal Thief.”  In order to heat their home during the winter months, his family must steal from the coal train.  His father died years ago after falling off a moving car, so now he must accompany his Uncle Ransom on the expeditions.

When a sheriff for the Paducha line stops them, Luke observes the man, thinking “it strange there were men like this in the world who dressed everyday in tailored suits and fresh slacks.  He doesn’t immediately understand who this man is, but he’s aware of his power over Ransom based on appearance: “as if stitched sleeves and raggedy jackets were no match for ironed-smooth trousers.”  But the story doesn’t end with the boy and uncle getting caught and arrested.  Ransom leads them through the woods, intentionally getting them lost even though he’s convinced the sheriff there’s a shortcut back to where they need to go.  What follows is a prime display of people’s capabilities when pit against the elements and survival is at stake.

While these stories do seem grim, its characters filled with despair, longing, and feelings of hopelessness, they don’t leave the reader feeling depressed.  Taylor incorporates humor into his stories, the kind that’s fitting of his characters: dark and crude.  “Winter in the Blood” begins with a man discovering three of his cows have been shot, while he and his daughter are on their way to bring a sheet cake to his terminally ill sister.  The culprits return, demand to be taken to the sister’s house and after they’ve made known their intentions of killing the family, Vela, the sister, cracks cynical jokes, already having accepted her fate long before this day.

What’s surprising—and this isn’t exclusive to this story—is how the focal character, Atherton, empathizes with the men who mean to kill him for no valid reason, other than they woke up, got the idea, and decided to stick to it.

Atherton wondered what it was that made a man go crazy, if it was things down in the pit of him or if the outer world, this cold rushing wintry life, was enough to do it, deadlines and mortgages and marriages gone bad, broken bootlaces and thumbs mashed while mending fence—if that was all it took to drive a man sourbrained, then he figured himself to be near as crazy as Harry.  And that made him feel okay, somehow.  His insides warmed.  A lightness rose in his head.  Unweariment, Vela called it, and he felt it spread through him.  Lovely.

There’s not always a rational explanation for why people do the things they do in these stories, which can be said about real life.  But these characters have an unspoken understanding with those who oppose them, and their tales almost have the feel of parables that put into question the way they think and the choices they make.  Told in the gritty, lyrical prose style of great writers from the south, The Name of the Nearest River marks a new chapter for southern gothic stories, one that deserves merit because, as you’ll see once you crack open the book, it has earned the full attention of its readers.

Sarabande Books
April 1, 2010

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