From Nowhere, with Love

Gregory Hill’s East of Denver hits home in a way I didn’t quite expect. True, I hail from a small town east of Denver, but I would be lying if I claimed that Denver was ever a significant point of reference for me. This is probably because I lived quite east of Denver, way out in New Hampshire, in a town called Peterborough. Like a lot of small towns, Peterborough has that poetic blend of intensity and isolation, where little gestures reverberate and end up feeling big. East of Denver, despite some disparities, concerns a similar sort of place, and the echoes rattled my bones.

On the face of it, there aren’t too many parallels between Peterborough and Dorsey, the hometown of Hill’s unfortunately named twenty-something protagonist, Shakespeare Williams (a few generations back, his German émigré ancestors were the unwitting butt of a Staten Island official’s wicked sense of humor and hence a family name was born—the book is dusted liberally with such bone-dry drolleries). Where Dorsey is pancake-flat and drab as a mole, more Kansas than how your average postcard would portray the Rocky Mountain State, Peterborough is precisely how New England sells itself to the world—a quaint bricolage of historic white buildings, rolling voluptuously across a green smear of foothills and valleys. What else? Well, of course there is the lack of culture in Dorsey, where the biggest attraction is following fire trucks and watching your neighbor’s house burn down, whereas in Peterborough, we have a theater, and it’s a pretty good one, too. Of Dorsey, we learn that there are limited opportunities for young people who do not plan to work for the rest of their lives on a family farm, whereas in Peterborough agriculture has long since died away and instead there is a school, a hospital, and a factory that makes ball bearings. In Peterborough, you must drive to the liquor store. In Dorsey, the liquor store (operated out of the back of a pickup truck) drives to you. I admit that as I began this book and learned the lay of its unfamiliar lands, I clung fast to these marks of difference like talismans, as if to ward off some dark spirit from overtaking me. My effort, though, was futile. Maybe it’s an inevitable part of the thousand small identifications we have to make with character, with setting, with plot and situation—these basic units of fiction that we have to chew and swallow until they resemble something digestible, something that we can rearrange and process and read in the context of our own experience—but it wasn’t long until I saw Peterborough reflected in the dusty windows of the vacant storefronts of Dorsey. And, I admit, I was terrified.

Hill makes it perfectly clear from the get-go that Dorsey is not the kind of place where anybody would want to live, but particularly dreadful circumstances drive Shakes back there from the big city. His mother has died, his father is suffering from early onset dementia, Denver has lost its former luster, and as if that weren’t enough, some poor kids have killed his cat. It’s this last one that’s the kicker. How does he know poor kids did it?

Nothing can survive poor kids. Poor kids in the city in the summer are apocalyptic. They wander the neighborhood with spray paint and sticks. Tag it, break it, steal it, kill it.

They were bored, we can imagine, and frustrated. Shakes left Dorsey for the promise of a better life and perhaps one more kind and civil, but when he discovers his cat we can feel the illusion evaporate around him; the barbarism of frontier Dorsey is alive and well in present-day Denver. The terse description of the animal’s final moments, of Denver’s final moments, when the cat seems to sweat blood from its fur (we never find out how exactly the poor kids did it) suggests the pathology of those difficult feelings —a harvest from gardens of ugliness and cruelty.

Shakes’s certainty suggests the degree to which he’s familiar with these kinds of killings, and the discovery is made more disturbing by Shakes’s stoic resignation and the clipped, country tone with which he relates the gruesome news.

I put the cat in a cardboard box and waited for dark. I couldn’t bury her in the backyard. I was a renter. I couldn’t risk the next tenant digging her up and playing with her skull.

He doesn’t seem that upset by the death of his pet, or even particularly surprised. Rather, he seems annoyed by what it portends—the fact that he no longer has any reason to stay in Denver, and no place else to go but home, to the heart of where his real dread resides—the place, it seems, that taught him first and forever not to expect too much from the world. The scene provides a good introduction to the Dorsey frame of mind and an index of just how low the stakes are that Shakes initially holds. To be a native of Dorsey is apparently to expect and accept such random acts of violence like the calendar holidays that no one actually observes; maybe you crack a joke, but mostly you say nothing and the passage of another meaningless day is marked largely with silence. It’s a bleak vision of life, leavened only (and then only slightly) by how adroitly Shakes navigates his way through it—following what he sees as the path of his fate with the professionalism and hang-dog good humor of an old cow-puncher, whose wry smile belies a heart as dry and dusty as the ranges he’ll ride until the day he dies; but for all its bleakness, EOD is funny. Hill gets a lot of comic mileage out of just how cynical Shakes really is, particularly early on when, for example, a simple road-side pee break becomes an occasion for the kind of casually devastating deadpan insight that quickly becomes Shakes’s calling card:

I pissed in a ditch. The puddle huddled to itself like mercury. The ground didn’t want the moisture.

As darkly entertaining as these solitary musings often prove, it’s with the introduction of Shakes’s father, Emmett, that EOD gains depth and dynamism and Shakes finds a reason to keep living.

By all rights, Emmett should be as dour as his old-soul of a son, but in an ironic twist worthy of Shakes’s namesake, his most tragic aspect is also his mercy and salvation. The prematurely senile Emmett, a mechanical genius and once successful farmer, has the memory of a goldfish and recalls nothing of the unexpected death of his wife and the rapid downward trajectory his life assumed thereafter. When Shakes arrives, cat in hand, ready to bury the last thing he thought he cared about, he finds his father happy as a clam, eager to help and still possessed of immense technical facility, needing only the constant attention of someone patient to remind him what he’s doing every five minutes or so. When Shakes finds his father’s erstwhile caretaker, Unabelle, dead in a bathroom after an absurdly protracted search (anosmia, the lack of a sense of smell, runs in the family) he has little choice but to stay in Dorsey and the primary dramatic dyad of the novel is formed, with Shakes playing straight-man to the whimsical sprite that is the great Emmett Williams. Confronted almost immediately by the insurmountable task of saving the failing homestead from Mike Crutchfield, a predatory banker (who talks exactly like Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Snidley Whiplash) that took systematic advantage of his father’s delicate condition (including buying Emmett’s beloved Cessna for a paltry twenty bucks), Shakes spends much of the story working damage control, trying to hedge a productive vegetable garden against all but imminent foreclosure and financial destitution, making sure Emmett brushes his teeth, reading novelizations of sci-fi films by candlelight and hatching half-baked schemes to rob a bank with the only other Dorsey kids unlucky enough to have stuck around.

Where the supporting parts are concerned, Hill is remarkable in his ability to bring real pathos and a feeling of lived-in verisimilitude to a handful of characters who might easily have been little more than staging grounds for an endless barrage of punchlines if rendered more broadly. There’s D.J. Beckman, the former bully-cum-aspiring drug dealer with big ideas for the future of meth-brownies, Vaughn Atkins, the sarcastic guy who hardly ever leaves his mom’s basement… because he’s a paraplegic, and the most potentially cringe-worthy, Carissa McPhail, the world’s only plus-size anorexic. For the most part, Hill pulls off portraying these characters with the necessary aplomb to illustrate that their archly ironic foibles aren’t merely the side-show stuff a lesser writer might mug for, but are in fact essential to the soul of what it means to live in “flyover” country, where type is a caste you break from by skedaddling. While the novel is, in many ways, a more mature one for the bold direction it ultimately takes in realistically portraying the depressing toll that living in the middle of nowhere can take, Hill is undoubtedly stronger balancing humor and bleakness than he is at dishing out bleakness itself.

Yet, even as their lives implode in slow motion all around them, there’s a kind of magic whenever Shakes and Emmett are together in the foreground—fixing farm equipment, making meals, drinking beer, cracking jokes and even driving the countryside in silence—that feels like a renewal of some strange American covenant that promises wisdom through suffering, and the occasional rocket-powered bicycle. Part of me would be happy to read chapter after staccato chapter of their continuing adventures into eternity, but of course, eventually the book needs to come to an end. Unfortunately, the final few chapters suffer significantly from pacing, when the leisurely (and lush) rhythms of dry-rot give jarringly away to a sort of fire and brimstone conclusion that feels a little too fast and a little too cheap for the pensive, intimate, and tenderly terrifying story at the center of this little novel.

Terror may seem like a strong left field response to something as effortlessly likeable as EOD, for all its darkness, truly is, but maybe I felt this way because I wasn’t quite prepared to handle what it had to say. Reading the descriptions of this book, you get the feeling that you’re in for something zany—a classic feeling burlesque of small town, middle America updated for the twenty-first century, with just enough dreary authenticity to be dubbed “dark.” Prodigal son returns from big city, discovers everything has changed and yet nothing has changed, reunites with former friends, flames and foes, hatches wacky plot to save the family farm and finally put things right with dad. While, yes all these things do happen and in more or less that order, Hill is as unsympathetic toward the Pavlovian exigencies of the genre tropes he employs as he is un-squeamish about employing them. It is, in many ways, a formulaic book, redolent of all the right ingredients for a zany, dark, small town comedy straight from-the-box. What makes it special, and especially powerful, is that Hill, like his damaged characters, has a real talent for fucking everything up. The general brokenness that pervades Dorsey, that suffuses nearly every relationship in EOD, that tears at the social fabric and eats away at the town’s soul, is a brokenness that no amount of blackly comic country understatement and formulaic papering-over can disguise as anything less than painfully real. The fact is, of course, that most American towns have more in common with Dorsey than less. Many are small, many mean, and many so paralyzingly dull that cruelty and lack of feeling begin endlessly to chase one another’s tails. It can happen anywhere, from big towns to little, but it’s associated most with those in-between places, objects of a better place to be; east of Denver, north of Boston, between New York and Chicago, outside LA. East of Denver is a sentimental book, but it’s not in the habit of reciting cliché, at least not clichés that were never true to begin with. It would be easy to have rehearsed something even-handed, to have done a dark comedy that gave a place like Dorsey more credit than it deserves, but Hill never tries to sugarcoat the essential shitiness that prevails. What he does do exceptionally well is describe the weird sort of joy that only those who know they’re truly doomed can feel while the eyes of the world are too busy elsewhere, looking at more pleasant things.

Seth Blake is a writer from New Hampshire.