Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel, Honey from the Lion, is an extraordinary and powerful examination of the steady decimation of ten thousand acres of the West Virginia Allegheny forest. The novel moves with the assured pace of a thriller, while sentence by sentence Null plays with the language of place, of longing, and of violence. Within the book are echoes of Edward P. Jones’ The Known World in its scope and generous spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. The encompassing omniscient narration and deliberate, masterful plotting brings to mind Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. Frankly no first novel has the right to be this good—and yet, Null succeeds. He announces himself as a fully formed novelist.
Honey from the Lion centers around Helena, the company town for Cheat River Paper & Pulp. In the early years of the 1900s, the forest is ripe for industry. Located at the base of the Alleghenies, Helena has stores, bars, pastors, prostitutes, and—once a month—the company’s workers. These men descend to collect their pay, seeking a reprieve from their dangerous work. “Like sunflowers,” Null writes, “the wolves dished their faces to the sky. Light was a luxury the forest denied them. They clenched their eyes shut and savored the warmth, showing off the white undersides of their chins.”
The wolves are the timber wolves: the men who cut down the trees, which the teamsters then drag away. Too, there are “sawyers, filers and bulls, tallymen and grade crews, buckers and trimmermen with pitch on their hands.” By 1904, logging is a robust and healthy industry, and three soldiers from the Civil War’s early years have grown into land barons, amassing wealth from a distance.
At a time when California’s coast has been given a death sentence, ice caps are melting, and warnings about the sustainability of man’s consumption are still dismissed by some politicians and citizens, Null’s evocation of the forest’s steady destruction is both a prescient fable of our future and a humbling reminder of man’s consistent and tyrannical history of ruin at any cost. Yet, a newly cut tree’s descent can read like poetry: “With a metallic groan the tree twisted and fell—so fast, so slow, the drizzling molasses, as they all do. It parted the forest like a blade, the world shook and blurred with its percussion. Branches snapping, birds flaring. Like a courthouse coming down.”
The work is dangerous. Men’s lives mean nothing in comparison to profit. A drunken man notes that “the cities of Baltimore and Washington reads a hundred acres of poplar every morning over breakfast.” If a man dies, work must—and will—go on. Other men eager for work will come. Unsurprisingly, the workers of Cheat River have begun to compile a list of complaints: “Dying horses. Unmended bones. Rain, drudgery, bleeding hands. They wanted a doctor to visit the camps once a week, not once a month. Twenty-five cents an hour, not two dollars a day. A hot lunch. A ten-hour shift, not one without end. Collective bargaining, glory, power, recognition, revenge, a right to jury trial…” The solution comes in the form of a proposed union strike, as well as acts of violence—suggested by the more radicalized men—meant to shake the land barons’ control.
Null introduces a large cast of men who are no more than figures in a ledger to the company’s owners, but to the reader are fully realized men with ambitions, dreams, fears and longings: father-and-son Vance and Amos Church; Italian Leo Caspani; drunkard Blue Ruin; skilled timber wolf Neversummer; and Cur Greathouse, who has fled his family’s home following the death of his twin brother and an unwise but passionate dalliance with his stepmother. Null carefully fleshes out the wider world of the town, too: the union strikers use the Gulley, the black section of Helena, as a secret meeting place; Grayab is a Syrian peddler who befriends the struggling pastor Seldomridge; Zala, hiding under the name Sally Cove, has been abandoned by her foreign husband and is now disastrously involved with Cur.
Null controls the abundance of characters and plot through an omniscient narration that dips in and out of the story, weaving together—often before the reader understands the connections—several threads of plot. This voice is capable of knowing more than the characters and the reader. Time is malleable: prolepsis hints at the future and flashbacks inform the present. Distant but not distancing, evaluative but not cold, the novel’s perspective also allows for moments of true tragedy, as when a character who might have been the novel’s hero is killed off in a single paragraph, or a betrayal that will cost several lives is revealed in a single line.
Uniting the novel is Null’s writing: lyrical, dense, descriptive and poetic, but never forgetful that plot and character are essential. By following Cur, a West Virginian, Null speaks to the endless pull of time, and the unbreakable draw of returning to your native land. As alive and present as his characters seem, Null writes, “This country always belonged to the dead. The living rented upon their memories. The living looked embarrassed to be here.” Yet these men and women—the living—cannot help but long for home. Here is Null’s greatest gift: in the face of misery, of a cruel system built upon the broken backs of the men it is profiting from, Honey from the Lion is essentially a love song to the Alleghenies. Both the novel and the author love the flora and fauna, the poetry of the voices, the faces and bodies of the people, but especially the mountains themselves, looming overhead. Long ago stripped bare of their trees, they cast a long shadow, still.
Publisher: Lookout Books
Publication Date: September 8, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Beach