Scott Alexander Hess’s two novellas are hauntingly emotional, written with elegantly simple sentences that unfold layers of complication in emotion, theme, metaphor. Characters live, grow, and die alongside generational trauma, unkept promises, forbidden love, violence, and haunting, beautiful landscapes. But, beneath that, there is a persistence of hope. The Root of Everything follows three generations of a family as they build their lives in America across slowly converging timelines. Richard makes the journey from Germany with his brother; his son, Cal, is the first generation born on new soil; and his son, Stanford, finds himself in the wreckage of his parents’ marriage. Lightning follows Bud through forbidden love as he finds who he is truly meant to be, a man of the earth in the same way as his father. Both of these novellas, with their themes of trauma and becoming, are inextricably bound to place and land in the tradition of Western greats, the beauty of Hess’s landscapes evoking thoughts of Annie Proulx.
Hess’s world is wild and dangerous, its nature characterized with the same simple elegance of his prose. Trees are dark, foreboding, powerful things ready to undo a man foolhardy enough to challenge them. The earth is black and rich and bountiful, “mysterious and immense,” staining hands and clothes, claiming bodies, providing a future in return. In The Root of Everything the land reflects the generation viewing it. Richard’s inscrutable future in America rears up in the “dark canopy of the Black Forest.” Cal’s hope for prosperity lies in fallow farmland. Stanford basks in sun-dappled woodlands with secret lovers. In Lightning, whether it’s the titular horse, or the looming presence of the seasons, everywhere there is the power of the earth and those that gather their lives from it. There is the threat of loss, of pain, but in these pages every loss is a becoming.
In The Root of Everything, Richard protects his brother in their journey to America, but it is his hubris that undoes them both. Instead of despair, death turns “a soft burning flame into a god-like and histrionic blaze” inside Richard. In a moment of violence, Cal is given another shot at life. Stanford marvels at his mother’s tenacity, “her strong desire to carve out what might be left of her life” in choosing to leave him and his father behind. There is a nostalgia in Hess’s manipulation of time, an awareness of how it moves, a living thing that curates our view of the world. All of his characters gaze backwards towards what has been lost, towards the things the previous generation built for them, instilled in them, raised them into, with an abiding reverence for what has brought them to their current moment. Then, to their futures, barreling forward with a surety that something, large and unknowable and outlined in hope, is ahead of them, towards the place where their threads converge and they are, inevitably, together. These are stories of pain, and beauty, and the persistence born from survival. Stories of characters with their “sights on something coming, rather than that which was gone.”
Publisher: Rebel Satori Press
Publication date: July 13th, 2021
Reviewed by Dan Mazzacane