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Essays: The nights and days before and after Christmas | Under The Holly | When the Lights Go Out | Filling My Love Basket | Below an Oak Tree | In Pursuit of A Good Life | Was James Frey Framed? | Spills and Splatters | Confessions of a Coffeehouse Junkie | Books & Desktop Icons | iPod, Therefore iAm | Writing, Painting & Thoughts about Spirituality

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Write Stuff Columns: Archive: 2006 - 2007

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Book Review: Tear Down the Mountain

This is a book review I do not want to write. In fact, I have put it off for more than six months. Why the delay, you ask. Procrastination? Too busy? Lack of motivation? All of these. And yet none of these. It has nothing to do with the book or its author. For a first novel, the book offers a startling look into the contemporary scene of rural Appalachia. It is clear that Roger Alan Skipper reaches for a story that is close to him like a favorite coffee mug or faded denim jacket or even a place--an old diner where coffee is still served for fifty cents including free refills. The novel is not too complicated, nor too simple, nor too trite to write a review. In a manner of speaking--it is too true to be fiction.

I feel I might be he, Sid, who loves and hates the mountains where he once lived and left--as if the mountains themselves embrace and reject him. I feel that if I write about this book I may be committing myself to its plot. And I am not sure I like how the author left Sid Lore on page 208. The plot is simple and complex like the characters that pass through the pages between the book's covers. And if I write this review it will be like a rune that once it is carved into stone cannot be withdrawn--the future committed before it arrives--before it is lived. Is that possible?
During the alter call, the girl went forward. A swarm of growed-ups buried her in a mess of sweat and noise. "Give her your Spirit, Lord," one cherry-faced old bag bellered, and Sid shivered.... She couldn't get the tongues any better than he could, she said, and in the company of someone just like him, . . . he'd decided to talk in tongues whether they was the Lord's or his own, . . .
The author writes in an authentic voice; placing the reader in a small rural Appalachian mountain town, placing the reader in a small charismatic congregation, placing the reader on a road to tear down the mountain. Sid struggles with his identity, his sense of place and purpose. He sees Janet seeking acceptance in the church and identifies with her desperation, longing, isolation. Sid and his brother try to fit into this community, but Sid feels equally a part of it as he does a stranger to it.

Like the novel's title, some days I want to "tear down the mountain" in search of a place that has a better job market to match the housing costs. Sid and Janet "tear down the mountain"--a colloquial expression meaning to leave the mountains, not remove them--in a beat up pickup truck with no tags and "FARM USE scrawled on the doors with green spray paint. How were they to know that wasn't legal outside of West Virginia?"

Once left behind, the mountains change. After fourteen years divorced from the home where Sid and Janet met, they return separately to find the quiet little secluded place in the Appalachians transformed to a tourist getaway.
A sense of the ridiculous swelled as she drove slowly. . . . Familiar signs that she never expected to see--Perkins and Comfort Inn. . . made it all a mixed-up dream.
Several themes complicate and populate this novel: personal identity, community, the authentic and superficial attributes of religious life, gender roles in a traditional marriage, and the emotional strain of unemployment in an economically challenged and changing Appalachian town. All these themes resonate with the Asheville, North Carolina experience.

A couple years ago I shared a conversation with an older graphic designer. I asked him how Asheville had changed since he had moved here (because it is rare to find someone in Asheville who actually grew up here). He told me that Asheville resembles Aspen during the 1980s. The older graphic designer had moved from a comercialized Aspen tourist spot to the quiet enclaves of Asheville. This city had the mountain charm and vibe that Aspen had lost. But now Asheville is losing its mountain roots and values--replacing it with tourism. And tourists visit Asheville to see a city on exhibition and do not share the commitment and struggle to maintain a daily mountain lifestyle.

I've witnessed families relocate to Asheville, but within 12 to 16 months move to Raleigh or other cities because skilled-labor opportunities (especially for professionals in creative services and high-tech businesses) are rare in this region. Just last week on the bus, Route 13 to be precise, I overheard two women talking about their plans to move to Charlotte because the jobs that pay well don't exist in Asheville. One of the women said she found a six-bedroom house in Charlotte and a job that can afford the mortgage (i.e. Asheville's housing is too expensive and the wages too low.) In Tear Down the Mountain, Sid Lore faced the same dilemma.
"May back's no better. Unless we move where there's jobs I can do, its up to you. Or we can set here and starve." [Sid's] eyelids hung red and water shot like an old hound's. "You could go to college, learn that stuff."
Sacrifices must be made if one wants to live in the mountains of Asheville. Sid and Janet decide to move to a city in the valley where there are jobs.
Where Route 50 topped Allegheny Front Sid pulled to the side of the road and killed the engine. "What's wrong?" Janet said. "You want to give the mountains one last look before we fall off?"
"No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God. The Bible says that."
Sid laughed . . . "I didn't figure it come from the TV Guide . . ."
At this point in the novel I begin to dislike the story. They left the mountains. I knew before I left page 176 that they could never return to the same mountains they once knew. No one ever does. Once you leave you lose your ground--your roots. You change. The place changes. That is why I do not want to leave Asheville. That is why I sacrifice a lot to stay in this area. That is why a lot of citizens in Asheville accept low wages and high costs of living. They do not want to tear down the mountain. They accept the hardships and ironies of a mountain lifestyle. That is how I would have ended the novel, but that is not the life the author planned for Sid Lore and Janet Holler. Tear Down the Mountain is a tragic Appalachian love story. And Roger Alan Skipper's debut novel from Soft Skull Press could have no other ending. But it is not my ending.

Originally published in The Indie, Volume 5, Number 51