Tear Down the Mountain.
It looks like I missed author Roger Alan Skipper’s reading of his debut novel Tear Down the Mountain at Malaprop’s Bookstore earlier this month. I’m sorry I missed that reading, because Malaprop’s, a top notch independent bookstore nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina, is the perfect place to curl up in a chair and listen to Skipper’s story of a struggling West Virginia romance.
It’s easy to lose yourself in a novel about life in the Appalachian Mountains when you’re in Appalachia yourself, but with Tear Down the Mountain, although it would be ideal, it isn’t really necessary, as Skipper has recreated rural mountain life so precisely it’s as if you’re living life right alongside the characters.
We first meet Janet Hollar and Sid Lore as teenagers struggling with loneliness and alienation; Janet because she is unable to lose herself enough in her Pentecostal religion long enough to speak in tongues, and Sid because he won’t try. When circumstances threaten to keep them apart, they decide to marry, and what follows is the decades-long chronicling of their marriage and their struggle to survive with very few resources – no education, no jobs, no family and very few friends to lean on for support. At the start of their marriage, the pair only have two assets – their youth and their hope, both of which trickle away as poverty begins to grind them down.
Early in their marriage, Sid ruins his back doing manual labor as a mason, and Janet must support them as a flagger for a paving crew. As Sid takes over the duties of cooking and cleaning their silver single-wide trailer, his frustration and feelings of emasculation grow, and Janet’s well-intentioned but horrid anniversary gift to him, an apron, only make things worse. Finally, he can’t take any more and insists that they need to leave West Virginia, to “tear down the mountain” and go somewhere with opportunity. The pull of Appalachia is too strong in Janet, and the fight that ensues shatters what is left of their hope, manifested by shards of Sid’s teeth and Janet’s only flower pot.
Roger Alan Skipper writes about his home state in the grand tradition of the great Southern writers. What Eudora Welty is to Mississippi and Harper Lee is to Alabama, Skipper is to West Virginia. His descriptions of modern rural life are almost tangible. Early in the novel, Janet’s disapproving father goads Sid into going hunting with Harlin Wall, a dangerous and unstable man. Sid goes to Harlin’s house, a “swayback two-story structure” that is tucked so far back in the hollow that Sid can’t believe anyone really lives there. The door is open, and when Sid pokes his head in to announce his presence, he is greeted with a scene so grotesque and horrific it was “too much to look at, yet every detail impossible not to see.”
This was the strongest part of the novel by far because it isn’t every romance book that takes a completely unexpected swerve into the horror genre. And best of all, in this brief interlude into Creepyland, Skipper does what hundreds of horror novelists never manage. By underpromising – Going to Harlin Wall’s? Oh, you don’t want to do that – and overdelivering, he gives the reader a moment of genuine eye-popping horror, a completely realistic depiction of rural poverty that for the unprepared like Sid, is blindingly awful and unforgettable.
Tear Down the Mountain casts an unsentimental view of rural poverty, showing the grinding down of isolated rural life combined with humanity’s remarkable ability to persevere, like weed sprouts pushing up through concrete.
And while I’m sorry I missed the reading at Malaprop’s, I’m glad the book made its way out of Appalachia to a wider audience.
Tear Down the Mountain
By Roger Alan Skipper
September 2006 by Soft Skull Press
Softcover, 208 pp
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Tear Down the Mountain.