Tag Archives: Glenn Taylor

A Hanging at Cinder Bottom: A rollicking good yarn

Cover imageWesterns aren’t exactly my style but I’ve been a fan of Glenn Taylor’s novels since his first, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. Set, like the previous two, in his home state of West Virginia, A Hanging at Cinder Bottom is a rip-roaring tale of small town life in the coal rush where powerful men make their own kind of law and corruption is the name of their game. The city of Baltimore comes up once or twice which is perhaps why The Wire popped into my head but a more appropriate comparison would be with Boardwalk Empire. Whichever, in the right hands, it would make a corker of a film.

It begins in August 1910 with Abe Baach and Goldie Toothman about to face execution. Keystone is all agog: it’s the first public hanging in years and people have come from all over McDowell County to see the show. A Punch and Judy stall tells their story, handbills are distributed, last photographs of the handsome couple – both dressed in their finery – are taken. Rutherford Rutherford, Keystone’s lawman, stands up to make his speech which is, shall we say, a little windy. His customary morning breakfast of six hardboiled eggs seems to be giving him a little trouble but he still relishes the thought of what is to come: the execution of the two people he loathes most in his small world. Just after the condemned have had their say the noon train pulls into the station, a small army of men jumping from its empty coal hoppers. Stuffed with colourful characters, goodies, baddies, gambling, cheating, a fantastically elaborate con and a monkey, the rest of Taylor’s novel is the story of how Abe and Goldie arrived on that gallows platform.

In his author’s note Taylor calls his novel ‘an unruly work of fiction’ which describes beautifully the comings, goings, adventures, misadventures and general shenanigans which make up his story but the way each part slots neatly together is far from unruly. The cliff-hanging first chapter sets us up nicely for what comes after but it’s not until the last few pages that you’ll appreciate just how cleverly the foundations have been laid for the denouement. Taylor engages our affections for Abe and Goldie from the start, spinning his yarn over an enjoyable few hundred pages in which a great deal of humour is mixed with tragedy and adventure until we learn their fate. The final, wonderfully theatrical chapter is a triumph which had me chuckling with satisfaction as the many stealthily laid clues resolve themselves. It’s a rollicking good read and I’m sure that Taylor had a great deal of fun writing it. There is a sober side, though – Taylor is careful to point out in his acknowledgements that the real McDowell County suffers from neglect, both public and corporate. In a nice touch, the novel is dedicated to its people, ‘past, present and future’.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 1

MotherlandLong experience has taught me that a ‘lost’ novel is often best kept that way so I won’t be including Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman here. Surely the entire world and its dog must know about it by now, anyway. Instead I thought I’d take a look at a few less trumpeted titles due in July of which there are enough to spread across two posts, beginning with Jo McMillan’s Motherland set in 1978. Jess’s mother is a communist, a fish out of water in Tamworth which resolutely resists her exhortations to see the light. When she gets the chance to spend the summer teaching in East Germany she and Jess decamp. A new life opens up, or so it seems. It’s billed as ‘a tragic-comic portrait of childhood’ and sounds very appealing.

I’m a little unsure about M. O. Walsh’s debut My Sunshine Away which comes garlanded with praise from an extraordinary range of authors including the likes of Kathryn Stockett, Matthew Thomas and Anne Rice, to name but a few. Set in Louisiana in the ‘80s, it’s narrated by a fourteen-year-old who’s in love with Lindy Simpson, raped on her way home from school one summer day. Worryingly, we may be in The Lovely Bones territory, here, but so many writers have extolled the beauty of Walsh’s writing that I’m willing to give it a try.

Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This sounds entirely different. Greg Marnier is an American academic who has somehow landed up in Aberystwyth. At his college reunion, addled with jet lag and drink, he’s persuaded by a wealthy old friend that the derelict neighbourhoods of Detroit may offer him a way out. Robert’s plan is to buy up swathes of the boarded-up city and build a new America but several of the owners fail to share his vision. Clashes follow in what sounds like an interesting novel.A Hanging at Cinder Bottom

Several years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Glenn Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. His new novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottomis set during the boom years of the West Virginia coal mining industry. Poker-playing Abe Baach returns to Keystone hoping for a reunion with his lover Goldie Toothman, madam of the local brothel, only to find his brother dead and his father’s saloon a shambles. Trenchmouth was a triumph so I’m looking forward to a rollicking good read.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Scarlett Thomas’ writing in the past – The End of Mr Y left me cold but I enjoyed Our Tragic Universe very much. Her new novel, The Seed Collectors, sees an extended family gathered to remember their Aunt Oleander. Each family member has been bequeathed a seed pod, but with the legacy comes secrets which may divide them irrevocably. It’s described as ‘revealing all that it means to be connected, to be part of a society, to be part of the universe and to be human’. Something of a tall order, then.

The Night StagesSet in the ‘50s, my final choice for this instalment is Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages which follows Tamara, now a civilian after flying as an auxiliary pilot during the war years and settled in the west of Ireland. Her long affair founders when her lover’s brother disappears after a cycle race, leaving Niall convinced he is to blame in some way. Tamara decides to go to New York, reflecting on what has become of her life and her lover’s as she waits out a fogbound layover in Newfoundland. Both A Map of Glass and Sanctuary Line were quietly beautiful novels – I’m hoping for the same from The Night Stages.

That’s it for the first helping of July’s goodies. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis at Waterstones website. More to come soon.