Darkness Breaks

a review of Chris McGinley’s Coal Black: Stories

Reviewed by Wiley Reiver

The late great Barry Hannah liked to declare this about writing stories: “You get in, you get out.” I suppose that saying could be reasonably interpreted in more than one way, and sometimes I’ve wondered if Hannah himself could or would say what he was getting at. In any case, for me it’s always meant something like “make sure your story does everything it’s supposed to, but nothing more.”

A fine example of how to do that across a whole collection is Chris McGinley’s Coal Black (Shotgun Honey, 2019). His stories, set in the ruined hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky, depict how coal companies, drugs, hollowed-out towns, and blurred lines between right and wrong sustain as well as ravage generations. It’s no minimization of the impact of these stories or of McGinley’s artistry to say that each piece shows what an adept builder of fiction he is. There are three features of his writing that deserve special mention.

The first is the wonderfully transparent quality of his language. I think we sometimes wrongly limit praise of a writer’s style to language that, for whatever reason, draws attention to itself in a way that gives pleasure to the reader. There’s not really anything wrong with writing like that, but I don’t to overlook the ways in which language like McGinley’s also deserves praise in terms of style. He writes so as to show with precise and evocative detail places, people, and situations, with rightly modulated emotional effect, but without causing the reader to shift focus from what’s being shown to the language that shows it. That’s damn hard to do as consistently and as effectively as McGinley accomplishes it in this collection.

This example comes from “Coal Black Haint” (my favorite in the collection):

The woman lived in an old trailer in a holler of pockmarked single-wides and simple frame structures that sagged at the roofs. Here and there an old car sat on blocks amongst the weeds that had taken over. Plastic lawn chairs gone grey sat on porches and front lawns. Near the tops of the hills that rose up behind the holler, a white mist hung motionless.

Not a single word here does anything but point beyond itself. The result is a sensorily rich, rounded, and evocative description. McGinley also demonstrates here how acute his eye for detail is: “pockmarked single-wides” and “[p]lastic lawns chairs gone grey” are especially good.

Another quality to McGinley’s work is his weaving together of a grim-eyed realism with supernatural elements of mountain life, if that’s the phrase I mean. “Haints,” I’ve come to learn, are dead spirits, often angry and vengeful, but according to Appalachian historian Dave Talber, the term also applies to “an indefinable something that scares the bejeevers out of you.” Several of the stories involves haints, to varying degrees, and their presence, not surprising or distracting to the other characters, also doesn’t trip the reader up. You might not believe in haints yourself, but you’ll believe they exist in these stories just as much as bottomed out cars, kudzu, and way too much oxy.

The last strength to McGinley’s writing is his skillful shaping of theme. I find this a surprisingly affirming collection of stories, despite the often bootless violence, the stunted psyches and hopes, the environmental and economic devastation inflicted on his characters. The reason why is the theme the gradually emerges across the stories: Despite the myriad ravages suffered, the people of this land maintain ultimately unbreakable bonds with one another. And it’s impressive how many ways McGinley draws our attention to this. An apparently amoral drug dealer shoots down a sheriff, but in the man’s dying moments promises to bury him where he most wants. A gutless thief is moved by long-buried memories to return a stolen quit and to seek out the lonely old woman who made it. A sheriff prone to whipping out her baton for vicious use worries over how a group of filthy drug addicts will get home again from their lair. Read the stories and you’ll see more variations on this theme of enduring connection, whatever else might have been carried away.

People in the region represented in this excellent collection have a saying: “Coal keeps us and kills us.” McGinley doesn’t flinch from showing us the implications of that truth, and he does with masterful use of language and a keen, truthful sense of what can preserve humanity and community despite the violences we inflict on ourselves and one another. These aren’t necessarily always comfortable or comforting stories to read, but doing so anyway is how we can learn to see a little better in the coal black darkness of this world.

Coal Black: Stories by Chris McGinley

Wiley Reiver

Wiley Reiver is from the South Carolina Lowcountry but currently lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He works in university administration. He’s also been a picture framer, college English teacher, ESL instructor in Iraq, racetrack bathroom cleaner, and very bad maker of donuts. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared under other names in the New York TimesFried Chicken and Coffee, the Civil War Monitor, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He’s at work on a New Orleans crime novel. Twitter: @SFWriter3.