By Matthew Neill Null
Sarabande Books (April 18, 2016)
Reviewed by Billie Hinton
Like the river that rushes through Matthew Neill Null’s prize-winning debut story collection, Allegheny Front is a thing of wild beauty. And while the writing is what won Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the physical book itself is a delight to hold in the hand: textured cover with big bold imagery, lush creamy pages, the perfect size and weight for ease of reading. Which is all beside the point when the stories inside are riveting and raw, rich and searing, with turns of phrase as clear and sharp as the masterful cracking of a whip.
“The boys waited for the fox under a wash of stars. There were hunts, too, writ in the sky above: the hare, the dogs greater and lesser, and the Great Hunter whipping them on.” (Something You Can’t Live Without)
Null is the Great Hunter here; he captures truths specific to West Virginia: the particulars of the landscape, its people, wildlife, and the juxtaposition of these with commerce and the earning of livings.
Meanwhile the universal streaks out like lightning from the page, illuminating the particulars of our own personal landscapes, whatever they might be. Null’s stories are finely drawn with characters we won’t forget, and they make us remember our own places, how we formed and how the land made us some of who we are. Lines are drawn in all directions and get crossed that way too, and the puzzles Null makes with his stories make us forget which side of the line we’re on.
“The river augured and torqued, a muscular green. Shards of flotsam and jetsam: broken sycamores and garbage bags, bleached timber, a child’s tricycle. A water-bloated calf wheeled downriver, eyes blue as heaven.” (Gauley Season)
Null’s rendering of landscape and character is perfectly drawn; he captures a sensibility that is intimately tied to landscape and place, the ways in which growing up in a place forms both character and perspective. It’s not easy to get this right but he does it with precision.
The Allegheny Front is the major southeast/east-facing escarpment in the Allegheny Mountains. A quick read online reveals this line from the Wikipedia entry: “The long, steep, nearly continuous, often windswept escarpment of the Allegheny Front has both positive and negative effects on society and culture in the central Appalachians region.” I’m tempted to suggest they add Null’s book to the entry. These stories bring that line to life.
He dedicates this book “for the animals.” Mules, red foxes, black bears. Wood duck and grouse, eagles, trout, deer. Where they live and how, how we cross paths with them and cross lines.
Null’s work is both literary and documentary in nature, revealing place and character while outlining issues of the environment, wildlife, the way our lives rub raw against the land we live on. A wild, raw journey and a must read book of stories.
BILLIE HINTON is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.