Review: In a fierce novel about Appalachia, the handlers are worse than the snakes
Two years before he killed himself in 1979 at age 26, writer Breece D’J Pancake started drafting a story about a snake-handler. The preacher in the story didn’t have a snake to use, but he did have strychnine, the other sacred element of the service. He promptly collapsed, poisoned. “I reckon we better get him a doctor,” the narrator says. The preacher’s wife is grossly offended, insisting that he needs Jesus instead of medical attention. “She looks at me like I’ve fallen from grace,” he writes.
Amy Jo Burns’ debut novel, “Shiner,” takes that setting and its tensions — faith versus reality, peril and those who self-righteously toy with it — and gives it a smart, stylish update. Burns’ story is informed by the idea that myth hasn’t served Appalachia well; it leads to notions like “clean coal” and hot-air arguments from J.D. Vance that what the region lacks isn’t resources but stick-to-it-iveness. Yet Burns comes not to chastise the region, just to scrub away such mythmaking, in which women almost always come out on the losing end.
“Our men slip serpents through their fingers on Sunday morning,” she writes, “and pray for God to show Himself while our wives wash their husbands’ underpants.”
The narrator of much of the story is Wren, the teenage daughter of Briar, a West Virginia snake-handler who’s cultivated a legend for himself: He’s nicknamed White Eye thanks to the bolt of lightning that allegedly struck him as a child and led him to Jesus. He’s a hard-liner as both a preacher and a family man, which makes him an oppressive force in the lives of both Wren and her mother, Ruby. After Ruby’s closest friend, Ivy, is badly injured by a pot of soap lye, Briar’s laying-on of hands seems to save her. But then, nobody heeds the doctor when Ivy develops bronchitis and dies. Religion, for Wren, becomes not just a delusion but also a mortal threat.
“All my life my chances for escape were so few,” she realizes. (Even the nearest city is called Trap.) Lines like that are the Chekhov’s gun of coming-of-age fiction: If there’s talk early on about getting out of town, somebody’s going to make a break for it before the story’s over. But first, Burns runs through a series of flashbacks that delve into Ruby’s early courtship with Briar, her romantic rivalries with Ivy and her touch-and-go relationship with Flynn, a young moonshiner who, in spite of his law-breaking, has more virtue in him than any preacher. Wren’s heritage is more complicated than she thought — and more of a danger than she knew.
There’s a “Rashomon"-like quality to Burns’ shifts in perspective; manly virtue from one angle is heedless violence from another. But she finds common threads in the way that blind faith clouds judgment, as well as in how much of the violence is borne by women. The wives of miners, Burns notes, were punished for husbands’ injuries. “Coal miners’ wives have been forced to use sex as a shield since the 1930s, when mining companies had yet to purge the hills of ore and coal barons thought they owned the right to all the land’s riches — including the women,” she writes. “A mining wife earned scrips for food and clothing by sleeping with her husband’s boss.” (There too was an ugly religious justification: The system was known as an “Esau arrangement.”)
That digression aside, Burns doesn’t play the dynamic in a didactic way. She simply lets the degradations of Ivy, Ruby and Wren pile up until the nature of the crisis is inescapable. In that regard, she’s an inheritor of Pancake, an Appalachian native who didn’t want his fiction to explain the region so much as inhabit it, with characters that are plainspoken and stubborn but also stymied by a sense of resignation. For Burns, that means balancing Wren’s urge to leave town with her sense of how much the place has shaped her identity. When a young man asks her if she believes in snake-handling, she freezes: “It was an outsider’s question. I didn’t have an answer.”
Though it’s set in the near past, “Shiner” often reads like an ages-old story. Burns makes contemporary references sparingly — when opioids or cellphones appear, they’re like holograms, wavery and peculiar. Instead, she sticks to the landscape, a rich trove of metaphor: a river that can wash your sins away or drown you, snakes that signal blind faith or blunt mortality. (At one point, a snake falls into a burial plot and circles around the Bible resting on a casket.) At the micro level, this can sometimes get a little odd and overwrought. There has to be a less absurd way for Ivy to signal her daredevil feminist streak than to make a wreath of gloves she’s stolen from men, place it around her neck and then take a lighter to it, becoming a woman “who had crowned herself in fire.”
But making the place strange is part of Burns’ mission; tradition does Wren no favors. She’s been raised with a perverse set of assumptions about the roles of men and women and the necessity to hide abuse for the good of the order. That’s something Burns comes to from personal experience: Her 2014 memoir, “Cinderland,” chronicled a sex abuse scandal that her Pennsylvania hometown fought to keep quiet. The same contempt for playing nice informs “Shiner.”
Wren often dwells on an unfinished letter Ruby wrote to her. “I have to tell you—,” it starts, then cuts off. Tell her what? But that sentence doesn’t really need to be finished. Sticking around in one place long enough will give her all the answers she needs. Better to escape the old stories and legends, Burns suggests — forget others’ unfinished sentences, and write your own.
Amy Jo Burns
Riverhead: 272 pages, $27
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.