Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Damnation Spring, by Ash Davidson: A Truly Great American Novel

It's been a long time since I read anything as good as Ash Davidson's novel, Damnation Spring. This book wrecked me in ways I can't quite yet begin to understand. It is a quintessential American story, and a truly great American novel. It's my favorite book of 2021, and it's hard to imagine I'll read anything that'll affect me as much as this book did.

So Damnation Spring is set in a small logging town in northern California in 1977. It's the story of the Gundersen family: Rich, a 4th generation logger, his wife Colleen, and their young son, Chub. Life is not easy. Logging, already dangerous, is now a dying industry, as environmentalists and conservationists ("tree huggers" and hippies) are becoming increasingly fierce in their objections to destroying the redwoods. But, for a logger, what's the point of saving a tree? A tree exists to be cut down. A tree is just timber waiting to be turned into profit, say the logging company capitalists. Nature exists only to benefit humanity. 

But even more deeply, the conflict in this novel is about no less than survival: It's between those trying to "save the world," and those trying to save themselves. If Rich can't log anymore, how are he and the rest of the guys he works with supposed to make a living? Saving the trees will kill their community. Logging is all they know — it's the only way this small town can survive. 

So to save himself and his family, Rich takes one last shot: When a parcel of land near his home comes up for sale, he takes out a huge loan to buy it (without telling Colleen). His plan is to log it, quickly turn that timber into dollars, and then retire. The company he works for is logging an adjacent parcel, and will already be building the roads to allow him to get his timber out. So it's a perfect plan, assuming all goes well.

As you'd imagine, as is the case in good fiction, nothing goes well.

But the loggers vs. the tree huggers isn't the only environmental story here. Both the logging company as well as the government use a herbicide spray to keep down the weeds and make logging easier. Not coincidentally, the town suffers a rash of birth defects, miscarriages, and mysterious dead animals. The logging company tries to convince the town the herbicides are safe, as business always does. But most people, Colleen included, know that their drinking water is being polluted, and their health is being compromised. What will it take to convince others, including her own husband, that this is true? 

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962, warning of the dangers of unchecked use of chemical pesticides. When I read that book a few years ago, I was sort of shocked by how little we've learned since then. This novel certainly makes that point starkly, as well — about how chemicals have horrific unintended consequences. When we try to engineer nature for short-term benefit, the long-term detriments are devastating. 

There has been an influx lately of really good environmental novels. This takes its place at the head of the class — it's a combination of two other books I loved, The Overstory, by Richard Powers and Deep River, by Karl Marlantes. But this novel is even better than the sum of those two parts. 

I loved the environmental message in this novel, but I equally loved these characters and their story — especially how Davidson renders moments of tenderness between them in what is a cruel and tough world. I rooted for all of them, even though it's hard to know who to root for in a novel about competing interests, when everyone's claim seems legit, even when it pits wife against husband.

What's more, this novel is just so immersive. I haven't FELT like I was in a novel — the rainy, dreary forest, the stink and suck of the mud, the comfort beside the fire — like I did in this one. There were times, as I read this on hot summer days, I'd look up and be surprised there wasn't snow on the ground and I wasn't surrounded by redwoods. 

If it's possible for a first novel (yes, miraculously, this is a debut!) to be a masterpiece, this is it. This a book, like all the best books do, that will stay with me for a long time. I cannot recommend a novel more highly. 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Godspeed, by Nickolas Butler: Uncommon Affection for Character

At first blush, the plot of Nickolas Butler's new novel Godspeed may not sound like the stuff literary dreams are made of: Three dudes are hired by a rich lady to build a house on an impossibly tight deadline in the mountains of Wyoming. But in the hands of a storyteller as high caliber as Butler, it works!  

One reason it works is that there is a fair amount of mystery here: Why the tight deadline? Why that remote location? What's the deal with the woman Gretchen who hires them? Will they finish in time?

Secondly, these characters, as is often the case in Butler novels, are vastly underrepresented in fiction. So they're fascinating. Name another novel about construction workers. I'll wait. Sure, it's a risky choice. But because Butler is so good at writing characters, we're happily along for this ride to find out how it turns out for these fellas.

If you’re a Butler fan — and I’m huge one — you’ll immediately notice Godspeed is his first novel not set in Wisconsin. It's also his first novel that, if you're into genre-ing things, could be considered a mystery or a thriller.

Still, Godspeed is easily identifiable as a Butler novel for two reasons. First, even though his characters here are deeply flawed, he still displays an uncommon affection for them. That's a quality you don't find in too many writers, and it's one of the main reasons I love his books, this one included. Secondly, there's a tension here between the haves (Gretchen, and the rich tourists of Jackson Hole) and the have-nots (these three dudes). The three buddies who moved out to Wyoming from Utah and started a construction business recognize the risk of undertaking this project, sure. But they also see it as their golden ticket: Just a few months of hell and all our dreams can come true...assuming nothing goes wrong. And again, because we don't see these guys on the page too often, we're not really sure what exactly they're going to do. And that builds a massive amount of narrative tension and intrigue. 

But of course things go wrong. The question becomes, what are these guys really willing to do, what will they compromise, and will their friendship survive? Another Butler knack is for rendering male friendships — and he nails it again here with these three guys. The highs, the lows, the loyalty, the dick jokes.

If I still haven't convinced you to give this a try, hey, how about that cover art?! Pretty, pretty good. So but if you're a fan of the underdog, if you like seeing salt-of-the-earth people represented in fiction, and if you enjoy top-tier storytelling, this is a perfect novel for you.