It has become one of the laziest clichés to claim that the place in which a story is set becomes a character in that story. Works of fiction as great as Matthew Neill Null’s epic evocations of West Virginia deserve better. And yet the turn-of-the-century timber wolves at the center of his debut novel, last year’s Honey from the Lion, are no more important than the forests they decimate. “For the land and the people,” reads the dedication in that book. Null lavishes his generous attention on that land and those people in equal measure.
As if to announce up front its companion-piece status, his new story collection, Allegheny Front, is “for the animals.” Like the novel, Allegheny Front runs its fingers virtuosically across the keyboard of West Virginia’s history, lighting on two centuries’ worth of farmers and drovers, hunters and fishermen, scientists, poachers, preachers, and criminals. But like another superb recent story collection, Amy Parker’s Beasts and Children, most of these nine stories feature animals, sometimes in passing, but often in positions prominent enough that they, too, deserve to be called characters. In “Telemetry,” a German brown trout—enormous, aging, female—causes the tensions between grad-school researchers and a downtrodden local man to explode. “Natural Resources” is a devastating, succinct, and bleakly funny history of West Virginia’s bears that doesn’t even deign to make human beings characters—they’re more an anonymous and ominous force; the bears are the story.
Null’s great subject is human interaction with the natural world. In the Baltimore Review, he remarked, “I grew up fishing and hunting, and, in another life, I would have been a game warden.” It shows. By my crude calculations, less than 2% of this book takes place indoors. In gorgeously phrased detail, Null’s prose radiates a sense of protectiveness for West Virginia’s ecosystems.
Witness the opening salvo, “Something You Can’t Live Without,” an O’Henry Prize-winning story. In the first five pages, we encounter spruce, ironweed, seven sisters (I had to look it up, too), stands of chestnut oaks, apple trees, a holly bush; we encounter trout, bottle-flies with “their emerald backs in the sun,” monarch butterflies, a “furry gray deerfly,” and the blood bays that cart Cartwright, the story’s traveling salesman, toward the next sap on his “sucker list,” a document left behind by his predecessor in the Company that catalogues the state’s most gullible prospects. Most beautifully, we encounter passenger pigeons, the “black shrieking cloud” of them that Cartwright remembers watching with his family as a boy, “a pitch river of millions undulating in the sky.” All this before Cartwright ever crosses paths with another person.
Those metaphors epitomize Null’s approach to language: the imagistic precision, the poetic cadence, the comparisons grounded, like the stories, in the elemental. Null uncovers analogy in earthy places. In “Mates,” a twig crushed underfoot issues a sound “no more than the crack of a finch’s bone,” and a group of prisoners burying dead fellow inmates do so “with crosshairs chasing them like horseflies.” In an astonishingly vivid tale of 19th-century drovers, “The Slow Lean of Time,” greenhorn Henry Gorby watches as a muskellunge “the length of a child,” gorging itself on a family of ducklings, “tossed water like a canoe blade.” There is violence in these descriptions, violence inextricable from their beauty.
The same, of course, goes for the stories themselves. Null sometimes channels Flannery O’Connor’s deliciously cruel habit of letting the cosmos exact its revenge on morally compromised characters. In “Something You Can’t Live Without,” for instance, the reader senses immediately that Cartwright’s hot, somnolent journey to the next suckers on his list is in fact the path to his comeuppance. For his condescension toward a farmer and his sons, and for his shameless trickery, his body will endure a disgrace that seems to spiral out into perpetuity.
More often, though, the brutality of Null’s world is leavened by the writer’s sympathy for his characters. In “Mates,” Sull Mercer kills a bald eagle that has been feasting on his hens; despite repeated warnings from his wife and others, Sull leaves the eagle’s remains nailed to the side of his barn. The eagle’s mate, livid with grief, torments Sull as persistently as the albatross haunted the Ancient Mariner. And yet the story is a lament for both the bird and the man, a heartbroken and often decent soul.
“Mates” illuminates another consistent feature of Null’s fiction: the clashing of social classes and the enmity between the upwardly mobile and those who remain as they began:
Beyond blood, Carter was Sull’s best and oldest friend. In their youth, they had been the most talented poachers of their generation, jacklighting bucks, exploding trout streams with bottles of carbolic acid and netting the astonished catch as they bobbed to the surface, air bladders ruptured. One Veterans Day they creeled 123 native brook trout from Whitehorse Run. The legal limit was six. […] Sull always laughed to his wife how goofy it was Carter grew up to be a game warden.
“Goofy” is one way of putting it—in a single adjective, Sull reveals much of what blinds him. His friend has atoned for the sins of his poaching past—has become the ethical game warden Null himself might’ve become—while Sull’s stunted sense of what’s acceptable is linked with his family’s decline, which moves in inverse proportion to the rise of the McCullochs: Sull’s son is in jail, Carter’s son a prosperous lawyer. It is a rare, almost subversive reversal, in which ascendance actually stems from integrity and hard work rather than the rapacity that often characterizes West Virginia enterprise.
Equal to Null’s love of his native land and its inhabitants is his clear delight in the short story form and its traditions, the rigors it demands and the delirious possibilities it offers. “The Slow Lean of Time” features an omniscient narrator that can swoop across time and POVs in a manner reminiscent of Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones. Null has stated that he conceived “Something You Can’t Live Without” as a direct descendant of the “drummer tales” of O’Connor and Faulkner.
The excellent “Gauley Season” plays with the form of a Faulkner classic. Told in the first-person plural, it calls to memory “A Rose for Emily,” with its community voice pitted against a mysterious central figure. In “Gauley Season,” that figure is Kelly Bischoff, a local boy who’s made good in the whitewater rafting business, which is otherwise run by profit-hungry outsiders. Initially the community’s men—mostly out-of-work miners—take a kind of vicarious pride in Kelly’s success:
He showed what our kind could accomplish, if given the chance, in this sly, new world. We could go toe-to-toe, guide with skill, make that money. We were just as good as outsiders, almost equals, we weren’t just white mountain trash. The sting of the rafters’ uneasy looks when we pumped their gas or offered directions—with a few more Kelly Bischoffs, why, all that would end.
Then a figure straight from David Lynch, a high school girl from Maryland, moneyed and seemingly untouchable, drowns; her corpse, still lovely, her hair tangled with leaves, surfaces where “Meadow Creek sloughed mine acid into the Gauley”—the toxic part of the river carefully hidden from tourists. The dead girl undoes Kelly and haunts the men who had admired him. Her name, Amanda, whispers through the story like Laura Palmer’s through Twin Peaks. Characteristically, Null manages to fold in critiques of the mining industry and the Department of Natural Resources without lapsing into the sort of all-caps eco-harangue that mars, say, Jonathan Franzen’s take on mountaintop removal in Freedom.
The one lackluster story in Allegheny Front is also, fortunately, its slightest, both in length and ambition. More anecdote than story, “Rocking Stone” is an eccentric-uncle-who-cried-wolf parable with a weak punch line of an ending. Even here, though, Null’s ability to render violence with startling swiftness is impressive, and the story’s wolf—a gargantuan boulder that can be tipped back and forth without spilling from its perch—is an interesting-enough phenomenon. The piece doesn’t detract from the collection; it simply seems like a bagatelle, couched as it is between stories of such symphonic complexity and power.
In an interview for West Branch Wired, Null spoke of the challenges of writing both short stories and novels. Few, he suggests, can do both with equal skill, and such born short story writers as Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever floundered when they broadened their canvases. One exception, in Null’s opinion, is James Salter, with whom Null shares a penchant for a clipped lyricism that alternates longer sentences with fragments and subject-verb-period constructions. I agree with Null here—Salter’s story collections, Dusk and Last Night, are as moving and well constructed as A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, his best novels. Null is a young writer, only one novel and one story collection out in the world so far, but based on those two books, his West Virginia world seems as inexhaustible as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and he seems poised to join Salter in the pantheon of writers who excel at both short- and long-form fiction.