Today, we are pleased to review Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel Honey from the Lion, out from fabulous publisher Lookout Books. Brett Beach writes: “Uniting the novel is Null’s writing: lyrical, dense, descriptive and poetic, but never forgetful that plot and character are essential.” So kickoff your fall reading with this masterful debut.
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.