Dec 12, 2014

Dante Di Stefano Reviews Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman

Dry Bones in the Valley
By Tom Bouman
W.W. Norton, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-393-24302-4

Grit-Tender, Gut-Black, Cold-Gleaming

In a dream, the Lord shows the prophet Ezekiel a valley full of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel that if he speaks the word of the Lord, then the word will breathe life back into these skeletal remains. Bone will rattle together with bone. Joints will snap into sockets. Ribcages will levitate from the dust. Tendons will reattach. Flesh will be recovered. As it turns out, God’s being metaphorical here. The bones are Israel and this vision contains the promise of homecoming, the hope of a return to the Promised Land. Hope malingers amidst desolation. Nature decomposes, and re-composes itself, as terrifying self-portrait. Families rise and fall. These are powerful tropes in American literature. Nevertheless, when we speak of home, as Svetlana Boym has pointed out, we experience the first failure of homecoming. Today, the logic of the strip mall and the handheld devise infuses the marrow of our daily lives. There’s a desiccated quality ghosting through the technologically driven ethos of our contemporary consumer culture. Tom Bouman’s debut novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, autopsies these dry bones.

Bouman sets the novel during the early days of the hydro-fracking boom in the Marcellus Shale. Wild Thyme Township, the fictionalized Northeastern Pennsylvania municipality, where this rural noir unfolds is a place where the locals eat antelope jerky, poach lumber and deer, dip their toes in the drug trade, and drive their ATVs to the local bar. It’s a place where generations of families, like the Stiobhards, are fighting an eternal Whiskey Rebellion. It’s a place where pole barns and corncribs rot amidst second-growth forests. It’s a place where cell phones don’t always get good reception, where dirt roads are commoner than paved ones, where a rusted Frigidaire might ornament what passes for a front lawn, and where a house’s interior might reek of bat piss and creosote. In short, it’s a place that’s about a thirty minute drive outside of many American suburbs; it’s the perfect setting to explore the dark contours of cultural and personal loss.

Officer Henry Farrell, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is small town cop struggling with losses: environmental, emotional, ancestral, and connubial. In the opening pages of the novel, Farrell describes the view from his desk in the police station and says:
…way back in history someone had put a drop ceiling in the office, but I disliked looking at all the little holes and brown stains in it. So I popped out the tiles and unscrewed the frame. It’s still there in case someone wants to reinstall it. Till that day, I like seeing how everything works, the bones, everything plain from my steelcase desk right up to the pipes and HVAC near the ceiling.
Farrell’s impulse to lay things bare, to strip away the prefabricated, to tear down the artificial is the same impulse that animates Bouman’s novel as a whole. This impulse is also what propels the plot forward as Farrell investigates two local murders. Although the plot develops in a well-constructed and thoroughly satisfying manner, the real strength of Dry Bones in the Valley lies in the finely wrought nuances of Farrell’s narrative voice and the intricacies of his character.

Farrell’s narration is remarkable, a testament to Bouman’s facility as a writer. Sometimes the sentences unwind with the vertiginous grandeur of a Thelonious Monk number, sometimes they come clipped and slow like a fiddler bowing out “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in an old timey band. Toward the end of the novel, Farrell ruminates on the moments in his life that have slipped into a slower stream of time: “You don’t get many moments like that, I find. So you have to be open to them, even knowing that you won’t get many, and even knowing that when you remember them it’ll only feel like you’ve lost something important, instead of gaining something you can keep.” Grief and regret douse Farrell’s nostalgia for lost places, for departed loved ones, and for lost ways of living. Reading this novel is like taking a swig of moonshine. It burns and it sets you to reeling.

Ultimately, Dry Bones in the Valley delivers a poignant portrayal of a man coming to terms with loss. It also delivers an enjoyable and well-paced crime story. Most impressively, however, the novel reads as a love letter to Northeastern Pennsylvania. The backwoods characters such as Evelina Grady and Aub Dunigan, who inhabit this landscape, are as unforgettable as the Endless Mountains themselves. Bouman guides us through terrain as hardscrabble and as beautiful as a daylily growing in a trailer park. In Wild Thyme Township, history touches epidermis like barbed wire grown into an oak tree’s trunk. Riding shotgun with Henry Farrell over the mud ruts in a dirt road, one feels a little closer to seeing the world behind the world—as one might guess it really is—grit-tender, gut-black, cold-gleaming, beauty-stomped, and punched-alive. In the age of Twitter and Instagram (that is, in the era of the slipshod epiphany and the veneration of the superficial self), wisdom and delight shack up in such dark hollows, even if they have to share quarters with murder and sorrow for a spell.

Dante DiStefano's poetry and essays have appeared recently in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Southern California Review, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, the Phyllis Smart-Young Prize in Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets College Prize. He makes his living as a high school English teacher and he was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Information on Tom Bouman and Dry Bones in the Valley can be found here.