Friday, November 21, 2014

Book Review: Long Man by Amy Greene

I wanted to love this book. It's set in my home state of Tennessee. The author came to an event in the spring that I attended. I generally like Southern literature and don't feel I read enough of it. But sadly, this isn't the type of Southern lit that I respond to.

In 1936, TVA is damming up the river which will flood the town of Yuneetah near Knoxville. Everyone has been ordered to move and most have taken relocation packages from the government. Some moved to the next county to another farm, but some took the opportunity to move away north where there are factory jobs. Annie Clyde however does not want to move. She wants to stay with her three-year-old daughter Gracie, although her husband James has already rented them an apartment in Detroit. As they fight about their future, Gracie wanders off. Their hunt for her soon turns desperate as the lake is rising after days of rain and everyone has lost someone to the river before. A local drifter, Amos, has returned to the town to say goodbye and to visit his adoptive mother, Beulah, who lives up the mountainside and is outside of the evacuation zone. He quickly falls under suspicion. The sheriff struggles to organize a search party with nearly all of the town's residents long gone. Will Gracie be found before it's too late?

The book is languid, flowing slowly like a slow rising river. The descriptions are spot-on, and the reader can picture the twisted trees, the forest full of briers, the apple tree, the abandoned buildings. But personally, I need more than that. From my description it sounds like the book has a lot of plot, but that doesn't get going until nearly halfway into the book. And now, I don't mind a character-driven book, but I need to empathize with the main characters. Instead Annie Clyde is prickly, a loner who shuts people out. A lot of the book also dwells on her aunt, Silver, a recluse who lives at the top of the mountain and avoids people pretty constantly. And then there's Amos, who grew up in the town but has been riding the rails for 30 years, getting into trouble (as evidenced by his missing eye) and (sound familiar?) avoiding people. His adoptive mother is definitely an outsider although I wouldn't describe her as necessarily a recluse. But all of the main characters in the book are outsiders and most of them are recluses who dislike people. That's hard to believe (why are all these recluses living in or near a town anyway?) and harder to understand. I certainly understand there are cranky, socially maladaptive Southerners, but to populate all of your main characters from that subset is, to my mind, a mistake. The empathetic characters were James, the sheriff, and the TVA employee, who are all fairly minor characters. I'm sure some people will love this book. The skill of the writing is excellent, the descriptions evocative, and yes, some readers like their book full of quirky, cranky people. But I don't. That last point just didn't do it for me. And with the characters as they are, I'd have needed a lot more plot to be moving a lot faster, to get over it. And that was lacking too. With an extremely slow start and backstories that go back multiple generations, there wasn't nearly enough going on for my taste.

I want to emphasize this isn't at all a bad book. There are even people I would recommend it to. It's just not my cup of tea.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.

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