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Review

'A Hanging at Cinder Bottom' is an engaging, clever con

Imagine if Bonnie and Clyde had lived in West Virginia and hadn't needed to be so doggone famous.

Abe Baach and Goldie Toothman give the notorious outlaws a run for their (stolen) money in "A Hanging at Cinder Bottom." In the novel, the pair come of age at the turn of the last century. Coal was making West Virginia the Appalachian equivalent of the Wild West: There was outrageous wealth to be had, particularly if you were a politician, the law, corrupt, or all of the above.

Abe and Goldie are none. Abe is the son of an immigrant barkeeper; Goldie grows up in a brothel. She's a captivating performer and he's a blossoming magician-slash-card shark. They are young and beautiful and a little reckless — a perfect couple.

Except, when the book begins in 1910, they are headed to the gallows. What follows is the story of how they got there, a tense tale of love, grift and an elaborate con.

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This is the third novel from Glenn Taylor, a West Virginia native best known for 2009's "The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart," a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. The prose is polished and archaic, unique unto itself.

"Before the age of thirteen, Goldie had twice pulled a skinny whittler blade and touched its point to the groin of a man trying to force himself upon her…. The ladies of Fat Ruth's admired the girl's spirit," he writes. "And then there was Abe, loyal as they came, quiet when quiet was called for, and, if need be, tameless as the stalking lion."

This is the opportunity of fiction to create a foreign world with language, and Taylor does it seamlessly.

Cinder Bottom is a real place, the once-flourishing red-light district of the town of Keystone in McDowell County. Located in West Virginia's southernmost curve, McDowell County is a place of chronic poverty — John F. Kennedy stopped there while campaigning, and the deprivation of its residents prompted him to launch the modern food stamp program once in office.

"McDowell County is a place that is often misrepresented," Taylor writes, calling it "anything but ordinary." The picture he draws — fiction with a grain of truth — is Deadwood among the mountains. Harry Trent is sometime mayor and a leading businessman, a jovial manipulator who always seems to end up on top. His cohort includes the Beavers brothers, who've accrued wealth and power both, and Sheriff Rutherford Rutherford, a small and vile man who carries a superciliously long gun.

Their paths intersect with Abe's when Trent opens the Alhambra, an ambitious hotel. On the surface, its modern amenities attract wealthy men in the coal business, but to a select few it's the high-stakes poker game that's meant to do so. Abe is the Keystone Kid, the genius young card player on retainer to keep them entertained — and properly fleeced.

With Goldie serving drinks and secret codes like "this hangnail's a cocklebur," the money starts rolling in for both Trent and Abe. But eventually, greed and jealousy collide and Abe has to flee town, leaving Goldie behind.

The departure puts his family in Trent's sights; his mother's boarding house and the bar his father and brothers run barely scrape by. As they stave off poverty, Trent and his friends solidify their money and status. It's years before Abe returns, a wanted man, with a new set of skills and a lineup of eclectic, unusual friends. He's hoping his resources — a plethora of oddballs, really — and some astute planning can be enough to fight the Trent tide.

"Hanging" creates a con as complex (and frail) as one found in an Elmore Leonard novel — and if it can't keep Goldie and Trent from their destiny, that doesn't make it any less engaging.

Taylor's plotting is clever, and he keeps his cards close: The reader knows there's a reason for the octogenarian and his pet monkey, but exactly how they'll fit into the picture isn't revealed too soon.

This ingeniously structured novel is a lot of fun — if you like card tricks and whiskey and the story of people with nothing who are trying to pull off a big one.

A Hanging at Cinder Bottom: A Novel

Glenn Taylor
Tin House: 400 pp.; $15.95 paper

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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