Thursday, October 6, 2011
The night road.
And anyway, I'm not sure what exactly is useful about being a witch. Flying around would be fun, I suppose, if you're not prone to motion sickness, but the traditional witchy things - withering crops, spoiling milk, generally being a nuisance - seem more trouble than they're worth.
Sheri Holman's witch is a beleaguered, poor Virginia mountain woman named Cora Alley, and she's simultaneously the most real and most fantastic character in Holman's mostly excellent but sometimes spotty novel Witches on the Road Tonight.
Witches hopscotches from rural Virginia just as World War II is ramping up to the 1980s to present-day New York, unspooling a narrative between a father and daughter who have a reservoir of secrets and a lifetime of hurts. The book is at its strongest in the backwoods of the Virginia mountains and falters when it moves to the present, but is filled with strongly evocative detail.
Witches opens with a suicide note from Eddie Alley, a weary and sick old man, to his daughter Wallis, a television show host. Eddie worked in TV, too, as "Captain Casket," the corny host of a horror movie show. Eddie finds a bitter humor in comparing his hokey show to Wallis' newscast, musing that her show delights in terrifying viewers.
From present-day New York, Holman pulls us back to the fall of 1940, where photographer Sonia and write Tucker are on a WPA-funded trip to write a travel guide to rural Virginia. The assignment is a cruel joke - in a nation still reeling from the Depression, who can afford to travel? - and the trip has taken on an odd combination of honeymoon and funeral. Tucker's been drafted and is mere weeks from having to report. He and Sonia, the more worldly of the two, perhaps inevitably begin an affair that unspools as they travel through the backwoods of the Virginian mountains.
Their fragile idyll is shattered when Tucker hits a young Eddie Alley with his car. Eddie's not badly hurt, but Tucker and Sonia take him to his cabin, where they meet his mother, Cora, a woman with a spooky reputation in Panther Gap. Sonia and Tucker let themselves be talked into staying for a few days, with ambiguous but perhaps fatal consequences.
The novel skips several decades, and when we catch up to Eddie again, he's escaped Panther Gap, married, and fathered Wallis. His marriage, already fragile, is strained to breaking when Eddie brings home a young runaway, Jasper, who hangs around the station cadging odd jobs. Wallis become infatuated with Jasper, but there's a flinty edge to her affection, and Jasper's intentions are murkier. When Eddie's marriage to Wallis' mother Ann finally implodes, Eddie, Wallis, and Jasper find themselves back at Panther Gap, facing their own ghosts.
Holman deftly weaves the supernatural into her narrative, creating a night-riding witch and a possessed man with an aplomb that renders them completely plausible. Her writing shines at detail, particularly evoking the natural beauty and scrubby poverty of the mountains, lighting on details like Cora's two dresses and stained nightshirt resting on nails in the wall, or her rolling out exactly four biscuits.
Witches' opening is strong, but the narrative loses steam as it jumps around and the fragile magic of the first chapters is lost. Holman sometimes strains to find the connections between Wallis and Cora, and the first-person chapters narrated by Eddie are meandering. The book ends with one wishing to return to Panther Gap's witch.