“The night was cool, the wrack of the marsh heavy. A chevron of geese cut noisily overhead as they passed across a gibbous moon.” Such is the prose of Charles Dodd White’s tale of a man returned to Appalachia from the war, haunted by visions that “came back in grotesque shapes that were but masks of the waking world” and manning a military recruitment office next to a coffin shop. As with that symbolism, sometimes White lays on the language a little too thick in trying to conjure a lost time, a lost place:
By midday, he had come onto a wind-scoured road trafficked with every sort of commotion bound in or out of the Carolina Lowcountry. Even the occasional Model T truck gave a cheeky honk as it flew by, raising smell whirlwinds of dust. The daily mania of commerce in the vicinity of Beauford was a stark contrast to the regimented order of a training day on the island. Here, men and woman in sundry raced along the road, their colorful clothing whipped by the breeze. The variety was something of a poke in the eyeballs for Hiram, having been for so long accustomed to a shallowly deviating hue of green.
Such a paragraph, from the novel’s first chapter, exemplifies the problem that exists throughout; there is never a sense of an ease of phrasing—nothing here seems to have naturally formed itself into words, nor are any of these words particularly perfect. The poke in the eyeballs is the overwrought quality, the too-crafted description, the too-packed paragraph. And such language—rather than immersing readers in a the world of violence and death that White lays out for his protagonists, a father and son—distances the reader, discourages deeper wanderings into these mountains. “Hiram breathed out and let the preacher wince in the dusty sulk of the office made claustrophobic by the cigarette smoke,” for instance; such lines, rather than conveying an unshakable image, sound like tongue-twisters, a catalog of words, each too lovingly clung to for the wrong reasons. And the language occluded, leaving the hooch runner describes as having a “smile as wide as greed itself” invisible behind the cliché. White has his moments, sometimes, and some readers will surely be drawn into this tale, echoing as it does, albeit a bit too intentionally, certain tropes from Cormac McCarthy or Charles Frazer. There is a murder, a posse, a corpse that needs to be dug up. And there is an attempt at deep reflection on the mortality itself, though many readers will find the writing, along the way, to be like so many rusty bear traps scattered across their path.
Old ghosts kept to these mountains. In running from them, Hiram had thought he put them away, dispelled them somehow. But he now saw himself for the fool he was. Coming back into the hill country, he realized he was the one who haunted the land. Those ghosts, they belonged here more than he ever would.
Quite a lot of haunting, of several sorts, is happening here, but that most needful haunting of the reader by the word, of the story as something that lingers on, visceral, for the person who has read it—that is something White doesn’t manage to pack inside this book.