Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Coal Run / by Tawni O'Dell

There isn't much to Coal Run. It's always been a thoroughly forgettable place. Even back during its relatively prosperous days, and even before a mine explosion killed 96 men (half the entire male population), it was just another dying Pennsylvania coal town. But a generation later, the fierce pride of its people still resonates even as the physical evidence of wrecked lives and abandoned homes can kill the mood of observers. In its citizens, nearly all still feeling the effects of the disaster, flickers of the hardworking, blue collar spirit are still alive, it's women and (remaining) men holding on to what's left. This mentality of hardscrabble gumption is something Ivan Zoshchenko knows well as anyone. A former gridiron legend who left the town for further glory, the man known by all as "The Great Ivan Z" is back home after almost 20 years of drifting nomadically from one place to another. A sheriff's deputy, he now spends his days dealing with domestic disputes and high strung rednecks in a job--the only one he could get--which at least leaves his nights free to drink away his sorrows.

Anyway, it's the more personal matters that seem to occupy his time these days. With his father killed in the explosion, the only remaining family Ivan has are his stubborn mother, a hospital administrator still suppressing the past, and his staunchly independent sister, a single mom who despite her squalid living conditions, won't take any help from Ivan or her ex and never misses an opportunity to rail against the men in her life. There's also a little matter concerning two people he was once very close to--a friend and old girlfriend with whom he's lost touch. Only days away is the prison release of Reese Raynor, a onetime friend and teammate who's been serving time for beating his wife, (Ivan's ex) Crystal, into a coma. It's got Ivan thinking about the past more than ever and, as the release date lingers, he feels compelled to confront Reese, about his wife, sure, but also about a long-ago hidden secret the two men share and a regretful past that binds them both to the town.

O'Dell grounds her story in a starkly familiar world which no one will have difficulty engaging. Even readers who have no connection to the region and are unacquainted with the plight of its people, Coal Run communicates a common theme of grief, loss and regret with frightening realism. And while the character of Ivan, a figure mirroring the town's plight perfectly, can seem a bit unoriginal (the fallen athletic hero forced to come to terms with his shattered dreams) and O'Dell has a tendency to distort or oversentimentalize about his suffering, it's a story which moves along well enough. The book isn't really about individuals anyway. It's more of an acutely realistic case study of how past mistakes can reverberate, of how tragedy sometimes marks its survivors more than its victims and how the despair of dead-end lives exists right here in America, something which, as O'Dell tells it, is a story worth hearing. (FIC ODELL)

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