Daniel Pyne’s second book A Hole in the Ground Owned By a Liar is a well-told story of the futile attempts we make to escape our overwhelming, modern lives.
Lee Garrison, 40-ish, Band-Aids stamped across his knuckles and forehead, is hyperventilating in his car in the parking lot of a regional airport in Colorado, as I’m sure we all have at one time or another. He gets out and meets some business associates, and they climb into a helicopter together, congratulating Lee on having recently become very rich. Then, somewhere high over the Colorado wilderness, Lee picks up his briefcase, throws open the helicopter’s door, and leaps. And he falls, down towards the fog below, and then into it, and then he is gone.
So begins Daniel Pyne’s novel A Hole in the Ground Owned By a Liar. It makes sense, given Pyne’s extensive background in screenwriting (he wrote, amongst others, the screenplay for the remake of The Manchurian Candidate and is currently working with J.J. Abrams on Alcatraz), that there is a cinematic quality to this, his second book. Pyne is heavily invested in the visual, from the characters and their clothing to the Colorado mine country to the hole in the ground itself – a gold mine, purchased by Lee from an anonymous seller on eBay. All of it is described in detail, and often beautifully, and is shot through with an appreciation of and fascination for the history of the place, where Pyne grew up, and the hardscrabble prospectors who peopled it:
He could see over the treetops, across the valley to the skeletal ruins of the St. John’s Mine stamping plant, once the richest lode on the Front Range, with over three hundred employees and a foreman who had all his teeth capped cold with just the leavings that sluiced out of the placer troughs.
Lee, a high school teacher, begins excavating his mine on the weekends, joined by Doug, the amateur mining historian and county clerk, and Barbara, the mayor of tiny Basso Profundo Township. Pyne paces the novel masterfully, weaving Lee’s mining adventures with another, more somber exploration of his tumultuous relationship with his brother Grant, a recently released ex-con, and burgeoning romance with Rayna, the proprietor of the Township’s convenience store.
At the heart of A Hole in the Ground Owned By a Liar are the conflicting personalities of Grant and Lee. Lee, the older, even-keeled and respectable brother, resents Grant’s success with women, particularly women who happen to be involved with Lee. Freshly out of prison after a stint for assault, Grant finds Lee’s sense of moral superiority irritating, but also resents himself for seeming only to make things harder for Lee, even when he’s trying to help.
Both brothers are well-realized and fully formed, and it is the twists and turns of their relationship, more so than the whodunit-style mysteries that begin to spring up around the mine, that drive the novel forward. It is a shame to consider what could have been, as few of the other characters are as real or engaging as Lee and Grant. Doug is the obligatory awkward, obese character; Rayna has a good bit of manic pixie dream girl about her; and Barbara is a sounding board and occasional victim. The villains, a pair of mining magnates of Pakistani descent and Wyoming upbringing, only barely transcend caricature. The lack of real dynamics between many of the characters leads the dialogue to descend, in places, into awkward exchanges of quips and clever phrases.
But there is a poignant moment, not long after Lee has begun excavating the mine, when he tries to explain what he is doing to a skeptical Grant, and why he doesn’t care if there is any gold, or silver, or anything else waiting for him, down in the dark:
I mean, the goal is just the looking. You know what I’m saying? The hunt. To be honest, it will almost be disappointing to actually find anything because then inevitably it will turn into something altogether different. Not what I want. A business venture. You know? A job.
The miners who first cut into the Colorado hillsides lived in a time when delineation between a work life and a home life was still possible. In Lee’s and our modern, digital age, the two are as intricately woven as the twisting and overlapping tunnels of the mine. With our smart phones, e-mail, wireless connections and Bluetooth devices, there is no escape from the boss, no opportunity to do something else. Of course you got the e-mail. Of course you can fill out the forms, or forward the presentation, or check out the schematic. You’ve got it all with you, all the time, regardless of where you are. We check Facebook in the office and work e-mails in a bar. There is no more downtime, no home life, no work life. In the novel, a young nurse fails to put the pieces of a mystery at her clinic together because she only gets her news from TMZ and Twitter. Lee seems to make real use of his classroom only when it is empty. When the mine shows signs of being more than a lark, everyone’s lives take a sudden and radical turn for the worse. What Lee fights for, and perhaps what we all should, is a place to get away, a home away from home – subterranean, furnished only with walls thick enough to block a signal, a shovel, and a little, foolish hope. And failing that, there’s always eBay.