While they were busy working, tilling fields, and fixing cars, the American Dream went and changed right out from under many of America’s citizens, with little more than the flick of a magician’s wrist. Instead of hard work, no work became the goal, and instead of a lifetime of achievement earning a well-deserved rest, hitting the jackpot for early retirement became the endgame. The old dream sits rotting in the fields like the government-purchased bales of hay that open The New Valley, a triptych of novellas by Josh Weil.
From the first pages, one has the sense that as soon as the men at the heart of these stories gain some self-awareness, trouble awaits. The first novella, “Ridge Weather,” opens with the line, “It was the hay bales that did it.” The sight of that hay is the last straw for Osby Caudill’s depression, and also doubles as a reason for his father’s suicide. Cortland Caudill’s life’s work had been bought by the government for no other reason than to let it sit there. The other characters in The New Valley seem to be in much the same position.
Each of these stories is about men left behind by time, and so, rather than focusing on the future, they have to look back and try to rescue what they can. For Osby, a young steer paralyzed by disease becomes his cause. In “Stillman Wing,” the title character attempts to rebuild an old tractor as time passes by in an increasingly confusing manner. Geoff Sarver, the mildly retarded narrator of the final novella, “Sarverville Remains,” tries to make amends to a man in prison whose wife he fell in love with. As Geoff puts it, “Sometimes a person can’t even know hisself till someone else figures him out, and then he got to look at her who’s figured him and see in her what she knows before he can know it too.”
For each of these men, there’s a reminder that the world is accelerating faster than they can understand. Osby takes on a boarder, a young man from the local college who is studying kenaf, a hardy hemp-like crop, of which he says, “It’s going to revolutionize agriculturally based economies in regions of the country like this one.” The young man’s energy baffles Osby: “His eyes looked like they were powered by something completely foreign to Osby, completely different from whatever it was inside him.”
One of Weil’s many deft tricks is to make Stillman’s descent into dementia affecting and effective—no histrionics, no speeches. Things just stop making sense. In the depths of a hazy depression and a mind that can hold less and less as the days go on, Stillman chants along with one of his chi gong tapes, “I am the happiest person in the world!” and it is absolutely and utterly devastating.
As The New Valley unfolds and one novella gives way to another, the requirements of the writing get more complicated. Osby’s story unfolds more or less in real time, but time starts to blur under the gaze of Stillman’s macro loupe, used at first for fine engine work and then as glasses, until it is obscured altogether in Geoff’s limited viewpoint. Weil’s major talent—and it is major—lies in making the gears and levers of the book operate seamlessly, like the engines and equipment that litter its pages. He writes with little pretense or adornment, content to let the story come to him. And crucially, unlike some examinations of marginalized people, The New Valley does not feel exploitative or condescending. Every word feels necessary.
Weil’s keen observational eye brings the smallest details of the lives of these three men to light, and their acuity makes his other analyses gleam with truth. He writes of Osby, “It was like he wasn’t even meant to be a person. He would have been better off an animal, communicate by raising the hairs on his head or putting off some kind of smell.” This particular observation echoes a few pages later, when Osby notes as he pulls into his driveway, “It seemed perfectly possible that his father’s squashed-looking, wrinkly head might be there above the headrest, close-cropped white hair prickling on his scalp like cactus spines. Osby breathed hard out his nose.”
Despite the comparisons, the men of The New Valley aren’t animals. Nor are they machinery, the other comparison Weil often has them draw. Weil himself makes the reader all too aware of their humanity, and their emotions and heartbreak give this book a quiet heaviness, like the Blue Ridge Mountains that loom in the background.