By Matthew Neill Null
Lookout Books (September 8, 2015)
Reviewed by Billie Hinton
By turns graphic and poetic and sometimes both at once, Matthew Neill Null, in his literary debut, shapes vivid characters, West Virginia history, and a landscape under siege into one finely-hewn novel.
Null meticulously chronicles a community in West Virginia in 1904, as old growth forest is cut by hand using horses to haul the logs. The landscape herself seems to oversee the machinations of men: businessmen, loggers (called timber wolves), union men, a preacher, women. There is union-building going on, conversations in back rooms, and men named Cur and Neversummer, Seldomridge and McBride. The landscape is perfectly rendered, the work of cutting trees is brutal, and there are scenes (one in particular involving an accident and horses) that beg undoing. Yet the strength of the novel lies in Null’s refusal to flinch or back away from his story.
Null points his omniscient lens from one character to the next, but not in the panning sense, as in movies or video. It’s as if he sets up an old view camera and stands behind it, head beneath the black cloth, allowing, or perhaps conjuring, the slow seep of images. At times hard to see and even harder to unsee once they form, Null’s imagery and turns of phrase are beautiful, sharp, and keenly rendered.
Although a short novel, Honey From The Lion is one to read slowly for its rhythm and the weight that builds with each page. It’s also a book from which lines and passages might be lifted and appreciated on their own, outside the context of the larger work. A writer’s book, on one hand, but on the other, a fascinating documentation of a time and event that resonates with realism, historical accuracy, and an easy comparison to current environmental issues, including the oil and gas exploration many communities face today.
Null says in an interview with Smith Henderson, author of Fourth of July Creek (an interview well worth reading, here), that Honey From The Lion is a “shout and a warning’… but, he asks, will anyone hear it?
Null—already an award-winning short-story writer—and Honey From The Lion seem likely to attract well-deserved critical acclaim and many satisfied readers with this debut.
BILLIE HINTON is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.