Book Review: Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null

June 2, 2016

ALLEGHENY FRONTIn Allegheny Front, Matthew Neill Null’s first story collection and the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the author returns to the West Virginia territory he mined so beautifully in his thrilling first novel, Honey from the Lion. “The bolderfields, the spaces empty of people—a lonesomeness city-dwellers could never comprehend,” he writes of the setting. “Sometimes it seems you know animals more intimately than people.” In these nine stories, Null continues the work he began in his first book of unpacking the complicated relationship between man and the natural world. He approaches from alternately sympathetic, adversarial, and prophetic angles the slippery morality that arises when people are forced into the roles of predator and prey. All the while, Null adeptly evokes the West Virginia landscape, both as it is and as it used to be—“The Allegheny Mountains . . . were a series of blue lines on the horizon. This was long before the forests were scoured off the mountains and the coal chipped from their bellies, before blight withered the chestnut stands.” Prodigious in vision, and lushly evocative, Allegheny Front will undoubtedly solidify Matthew Neill Null’s reputation as one of the most ecologically and morally conscious writers working in fiction today.

Naturally, Null’s preferred landscape is the outside world; in the most literal sense, few of the stories take place inside homes or businesses. However, the stories also represent a system in which the primary values of education and wealth are held in contrast to the hardscrabble and often violent truths of rural life. The collection’s opening story, “Something You Can’t Live Without,” takes place on a farm at the base of the Alleghenies. Cartwright, a travelling salesman, has been sent to the farm of McBride. The salesman has been assured that McBride is a “sucker”—a gullible man who will buy into the salesman’s pitch for The Miracle Blade. This ingenious, modern marvel gives the story its name, and will, Cartwright promises, be the answer to the farmer’s problems. Null chronicles the negotiations between the two men. The narrative begins to feel like a horror story as ominous details unfold; for example, McBride’s creepy twin sons, who are catalysts for the story’s climax. Suffice it say that a cave and a gun are involved. But Null wisely concludes the story with a sweeping summary of the future of McBride’s land over the next hundred years that puts into perspective the insignificance of individual lives: “Trees can reclaim fields, maps can burn, courthouse deeds can be painted in the wondrous colors of mold.”

Set in the present day, “Telemetry” concerns Kathryn, a grad-school researcher who is camping out with her two male colleagues on the banks of Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. In this remote spot, the only other people are a seemingly homeless father and daughter living in a nearby tent. The researchers suspect the girl of stealing, but forgive her for a life she cannot control. In contrast, they view the reclusive father with wariness, and suspect him of misdeeds. Though born and raised in the area, Kathryn now identifies more with her colleagues than the father and daughter. When she and her colleagues take an assumptive and condescending attitude toward the man, and accuse him of dumping bleach into the river, she is not surprised by her betrayal: Kathryn’s education is an uncommon privilege, and a means to escape the Alleghenies.

The rise and fall of black bears in Tuscarora County is charted in “Natural Resources”—a brief but impactful piece of narrative exposition rich with details, evocative of Peter Orner’s work. Without dialogue or named characters, Null jauntily recounts how the bears were first protected by the state legislature and given a sanctuary. But soon, the bears are impinging on the town: racing across the road, or rummaging through the town dump as the citizens and their children watch. Fearful that the bears are too comfortable, the citizens reintroduce hunting to the area—first in controlled percentages, though pressure from the Bear Hunters Association establishes a virtual open season. The black bear population is decimated. Soon the bears have again become legend; dogs and rocks are mistaken for the creatures that once so richly populated the land. To Null’s great credit, the reader’s primary pathos lands with the wild black bears, so the story becomes a chilling indictment of predatory hunting practices. Nothing really changes, the story suggests. If man can dominate nature, he will.

This theme of combat between man and the outside world arises again and again, as in “Gauley Season” when a young woman and her father are killed in a rafting incident. Though the flipped raft tosses the two into the water, their bodies are swept away by the merciless force of the river. (The irony, as Null notes, is that the water’s power is a product of a man-made dam.)

“Mates” follows Sull Mercer, who shoots and kills a bald eagle. This is an illegal practice, as Sull’s best friend, who also happens to be a game warden, reminds him. Compounding Sull’s trouble, the bird’s mate refuses to vacate the land, and the eagle’s constant presence overhead haunts the man: “Once again, the mate banked against the ridgeline, gliding back in his direction, gliding effortlessly, like she could do it forever.”

“Mates” and other stories are concerned with the consequences of action. In “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River” a young man’s obsession with a girl quarantined on a tiny island with other victims of an unnamed illness leads to the eventual spread of the disease to his family, and the young man’s lifelong flight from his home. Following the drowning deaths in “Gauley Season,” the story’s collective narrators witness the downfall of the rafting expedition’s leader, a charismatic young man named Kelly. As the years pass, Kelly is nearly crippled by guilt. The story’s inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2014 is not an undue honor, though the story does not initially reveal itself as a mystery. Here, the influence of masters of the past—Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor—can be felt again and again. Null, too, understands better than most writers how people act out of a combination of pride, vanity, greed, lust, and love—even when these emotions remain unknown to the characters themselves.

Last year, when I enthusiastically reviewed Null’s book, Honey from the Lion, I noted that no first novel had any right to be this good. Even as these stories tread the same landscape as the novel, which chronicled the Cheat River Paper & Pulp logging company at the turn of the 20th century, the collection broadens the author’s canvas—traversing larger swaths of time, switching tones and moods from the laconic to the humorous and the horrifying. To the cast of loggers and timber wolves of his novel, Null now adds researchers, lawyers, salesmen, deadbeats, game wardens, and farmers. Few authors can so impressively give language to the often unspoken friendships of men, or invest such emotional weight to hunting or manual labor. In his clear affection for the land and the people of West Virginia, Null allows his characters a vocabulary both elegant and rough. I’ll revise my earlier statement to say that stories this good only make sense in light of a writer this good. What a pleasure to revisit this stretch of landscape. What a joy to once more have Matthew Neill Null as our guide.

Publisher: Sarabande Books

Publication Date: May 10, 2016

   Reviewed by: Brett Beach


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