The Underworld by Kevin Canty
Kevin Canty’s distinguished novel, The Underworld, is the vessel of a doubled vision that perhaps all great writing possesses. It empathically depicts a society that can’t form an adequate conception of itself. To do that it must reside both within that society and also outside it, in order to gain the aesthetic leverage required to form a picture.
There’s also a second ironic doubling in that this story about a hardscrabble Northwestern silver mining town, being a literary document, is unlikely to be accessible to the characters that it is about. There’s a schism in writing a novel about working class characters that those characters will likely not be reading.
I know of an eminent writer who teaches at an Ivy League school, who in her last commendable novel, treated working class people like they were from Mars; their lack of material and educational resources treated like an awkward embarrassment. Would the characters that you are writing about read the novel that you are writing? Would anyone other than the characters you are writing about want to read your novel?
In the first half of The Underworld, Kevin Canty writes up vignettes of a series of impoverished folks, impoverished of hope and confidence. Anne has several times taken the highway that leads to the bright promise of Seattle but always turns back, her determination failing. Lyle has 280K in the bank (in 1972) and owns his home. He could move anywhere but stays in a mining job that continues to wreck his health and endanger his life. He can’t think of what else to do. David stands out like a hippie or a faggot (terms of the day) because he goes to college in neighboring Missoula. He has a chance to get out and that’s like drawing a target on his back. There’s a wonderful scene late in the book where David is thinking of giving up on college. On his desk is an unfinished paper on ancient Chinese history that is at risk of being overdue.
It’s brilliant that Canty has David working on a paper that seems so irrelevant to a town which is often concerned about where its next beer is coming from. At a local wedding, the bride is probably drunk at the altar. But the ability to concern yourself with superfluous things, like reading good books or studying ancient Chinese history, are signals of the promise of a better life where you don’t drink the cheapest whiskey and where a night out doesn’t mean going to the local bar, getting drunk and brawling. Will David finish his paper on Chinese history or not? His whole future seems to hinge on this seemingly minor decision.
The first half of Underworld is wayward. I threw the book in the trash then pulled it out again. But the novel is split halfway down by a mine fire that results in wholesale slaughter. As a result of extreme trauma, a light breaks through this story that illuminates its characters like the light from an Edward Hopper painting. Kevin Canty’s writing seems to step up to a new level of intensity. From then on you notice the light as characters continue to swill cheap liquor, sleep around and mourn their losses. The Underworld reaches for, and succeeds in reaching, a higher elevation.