Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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There’s a popular television show that purports to be set in Eastern Kentucky, a vague place where cities have no landmarks or skylines and are always within speeding distance of the mythical mountains and hollers of Harlan, distinguished by references to mining and moonshine, a certain dramaturgically schooled twang, the odd Kentucky Ale T-shirt. I’m not reviewing that show, but I toss it out here, at the onset of a treatment of Sheldon Lee Compton’s book, to contrast hollow cliché and blank, sound-stage settings with the ineluctable particularity of real, living, bleeding place—the idiom and the feel, the pulse and scabs, the piss spray and beer can tabs. “Soaking bacon fat gravy with biscuits the size of his fists,” writes Compton, at one point. At another he gives us “The dog is yellow and I can see its sides moving in and out real slow like.” This is a portrait in miniature, of the yellow dog and also its context, of the seer and the way he sees. These are pieces here you’ll want to read real slow like, sopping up all the grease and bits of good meat. This is a book that takes a long look at the taken-for-granteds of a place, spelling out tragedy and violence and humor and hope, often all tangled together. “White hot anger,” Compton writes, “white hot lust. I figured there wasn’t much difference. Didn’t look to be, anyway.” His phrases wiggle their own loose teeth, delicious and painful at the same time, like “Always a bitch of a way of saying it, that.” And his descriptions, the best one anyway, can hit a rhythm, a sweet spot of language like music, getting a scene down, as in “Summer, Sunday morning. Arms floating towards fair heaven, stains at the pits, starch long gone, the shirt a loose skin in places, tangled to the body in others, the preacher is kinetic, wired to the rooftops, a direct line, a vessel.” Not everything is so sweaty and lit up in this book, but there’s an undercurrent here, like when “The C & O moves an overloaded swell of washed coal westward on twenty hooked cars, three times a day” that’ll just make you exhale in a slow whistle and say to hell with everything else.
Official Sheldon Lee Compton Web Site
Official Foxhead Books Web Site