Normally, I don’t have a lot of patience for book reviews, critic’s comments, or really anything where someone is telling me what I should or shouldn’t read. I tend to have particular and, yes, peculiar tastes in my literature. Some mainstream things I like just fine, and I love some things others would snub, and there are some alleged literary classics that make me ill. For example, I would rather have my teeth removed with a pair of pliers by a plumber than read, say, The Grapes of Wrath or The Red Badge of Courage. I’ve read them, but once was enough.
However, I’m going to be slightly hypocritical just this once (yeah, right) and offer up my opinion to the universe about a book I just finished. For just a few minutes, think of me like a New York times critic, only without the paycheck or the bullshit. I am justified, though, because, believe it or not, I happen to personally know the author. In fact, I graduated high school with him. How cool is that?! Check it out:
The book is A Welcome Walk into the Dark, by Ben E. Campbell. In fact, it’s a collection of short stories set in the state of Ben’s birth–West Virginia. (Incidentally, that is also the state of my birth.)
Let me start by warning you–if you are hoping for a book full of happily ever afters and rainbow ponies, you will be disappointed. What you will find is a book full of wonderful short stories about Appalachia, and, more importantly, the people who live there. I say “wonderful” not because they are cheerful, heart-warming stories, but because they are wonderfully written, honest, and full of depth. You know how you hear people say that certain actors are “character actors?” Well, Ben is a character writer. He captures the beauty and isolation of our Mountain State, but he really captures the people. Writing short stories is no small task. It is an art in and of itself. The author of a short story has to do essentially the same thing the author of a novel has to do, only in a tenth of the pages. The detail, the plot, the characters, all have to live on the page just as effectively as any novel, and it’s a real challenge. I consider it a lost art, and it’s a great indicator of talent that Ben can do it again and again.
Here’s my viewpoint of the book–Ben has a genuine love/hate relationship with his home state. I appreciate this perspective, because I share it, and so I think I have a pretty good understanding of it. It’s a beautiful place, like no other, and there are people here who are wonderful people–the type who would do anything to help their neighbors, who know the value of hard work, and who love their homes and their families.
But there’s another side–isn’t there always?
Ben takes the stereotypes and generalizations often thrown towards our state and dances them around the dance floor a dozen times over. Here’s the most un-obliging thing about stereotypes: usually they are rooted in truth. Another fact: usually the people most offended by stereotypes are the ones who they best apply to.
So at first glance, you might say, “Wow, he’s really giving these people a hard time!” but he is revealing what lives behind the beating heart of Appalachia–as Stephen King says, “the skull that grins behind the smile.” Yes, this is an area with a strong history of racism, bigotry, and violence. Many of those things are still alive and well today. Prescription drug abuse is almost epidemic in this state. Ben doesn’t gloss over any of these issues, and the stories are better for it.
The main resonating chord for me can be summed up in one word–roots. It’s tied in with that love/hate thing. You love your home–it’s where your history is, and your family. But here’s the thing about roots–when they go too deep, and the fire comes, all you can do is stand and burn. Roots can hold you up, but they trap you, too. This is a powerful theme in Ben’s work.
A minor aside: Ben and I didn’t always get along in high school. Looking back, it’s not all that surprising. When you put two people near each other with strong minds, unwavering opinions, and big mouths, friction is almost a foregone conclusion. But do you know what? The only real regret I have is that I wasn’t able to express myself with more maturity, because I actually enjoy a good debate, and I love being around intelligent, outspoken people, regardless of their opinions. Sadly, for the most part, teenagers are jerks. I fear my jerkiness may have been extra-concentrated.
For all of that, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to read Ben’s book and offer my opinion, which is the highest. I recommend you read it, no matter what state you are from. Ben writes without fear, and that is, to my particular taste, the greatest of all literary gifts.
In closing, all I can say is this: Well done, Ben! We anxiously await the next!