Books
4:24 pm
Mon March 8, 2010

"Eli the Good" by Silas House

Even in such excellent company, Silas House's career has been something of a phenomenon. His first novel, "Clay's Quilt," came out in 2001, and his second and third, "A Parchment of Leaves" (2002) and "The Coal Tattoo"( 2004 ) both won Kentucky Novel of the Year awards. House has also won the Special Achievement Award from the fellowship of Southern Writers and Appalachian Book of the Year, and "Eli The Good" is his fourth novel in just nine years. (He has also written two plays. and two movies. No writer's block here.)

Appalachian writers constitute a kind of a subset of Southern literature. Over the years, writers such as Jesse Stewart, Wendell Berry, and the poet James Still have led the pack, and in recent years Lee Smith, the superb and underappreciated Ron Rash, and the coal mining memoirs of Homer Hickam seem the most distinguished.

Even in such excellent company, Silas House's career has been something of a phenomenon. His first novel, "Clay's Quilt," came out in 2001, and his second and third, "A Parchment of Leaves" (2002) and "The Coal Tattoo"( 2004 ) both won Kentucky Novel of the Year awards. House has also won the Special Achievement Award from the fellowship of Southern Writers and Appalachian Book of the Year, and "Eli The Good" is his fourth novel in just nine years. (He has also written two plays. and two movies. No writer's block here.)

This work is a bit of a departure however, not about teens and twenty-somethings, coal mining, fast cars, marijuana and youthful sexual adventures, as in his earlier books. "Eli the Good" partakes, in a good way, of "To Kill a Mockingbird." The setting is small-town and the characters are just folks, neither rich planters nor poor folk. It is a domestic story, familiar and engaging, without melodrama or vampires.

The story is narrated by an adult Eli Book, a grown man, but the events in the novel are set in eastern Kentucky during the Bicentennial, 1976, when Eli was ten. The voice then, like Scout's, is mainly of a child, but occasionally one realizes the speaker is looking back.

And Eli's voice is mostly a quiet voice, sensitive, intelligent, a little bookish. Eli is a young person in harmony with the natural world, a preadolescent transcendentalist. He touches trees with his palms and can sense their life and in a way their thoughts. He likes to get up under the branches of a willow tree and dream or read or write in his journal of the day's adventures. (Along with "To Kill A Mockingbird," House admits, John Boy of "The Waltons" was a major influence. Yes, a boy of average means, from the mountains, could become a professional writer.) It should be an idyllic life, and in many ways it is, but of course it is not so simple. Eli's father is a Vietnam War vet from the 60's and suffers PTSD flashbacks.

Daddy has nightmares, sweats, and sometimes dangerous rages. Like so many Vietnam vets, he volunteered and felt he was doing his patriotic duty and absolutely cannot understand the antiwar sentiments in the country. He is especially outraged by his own sister, Nell, who was actually a famous anti-war protester, her picture on the front page of national publications.

Nell is ill and has come to live with the Books. Besides her political stance, Nell is a "free spirit"; Daddy is very straight, and there is a lot of tension.

Eli's older sister, Josie, is a rebellious teenager and she adds to the household tension. Josie has a pair of "flag pants," pants in red, white and blue with stars and stripes. Eli says, "our mom hated those pants, which only added to Josie's love for them." Mom is actually afraid the pants will set off Dad, who sees them as mocking the country.

Eli's best friend, Edie, who lives next door, has her own troubles. Her parents split up and her mom moves out.

Eli's s parents, on the other hand, really love each other and House explores here an interesting and ironic emotional phenomenon. Eli feels left out. There is "a wall" between Eli and his mom and Eli knows what it is. He says: "She loved my father more than me. This was hard for me." Freud would agree. They compete for Mom's attention and Eli is not winning.

Events come to a climax in this long, hot summer of '76 at the 4th of July celebration. The exploding fireworks knock Dad seriously off balance, and for a while it is not certain anything will be all right.

In the epilogue, House has Eli looking back from NYC where he lives in post-911 America, and makes slightly clearer what the reader has felt all along. America is doing it again. A new unpopular war, another generation of returning vets, dissent still castigated as unpatriotic. As the song says, "when will they ever learn?"

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