In the town where I grew up there was the diner close to the intersection of the two county highways. Past the register and around the left corner from the patent leather stools and Formica counter-tops, there was a big table right before the kitchen side entrance. It fit 9 people, 12 if people didn't mind rubbing elbows. Most mornings a great meeting of the minds took place there over the diner's burnt coffee and rubbery omelets. Ranch hands, oil derricks, WWII vets, retirees waiting for their tee times all congregated there and took turns sitting at the table. In turns, they'd solve all of the world's problems, shoot the shit and tell their most fantastical yarns. Solving the world's problems took 10-15 minutes tops so much of the time was spent with the other two.
On a lazy Saturday or summer morning before the sun rose too high up making things miserable, my dad would take me to the diner and I'd sit at or near that table and watch my dad and sometimes my grandad take court. I heard many a fishing whopper, several hunting stories and every type of story in between, some fantastical, some humorous, some mundane. I always knew the type of company at the table by the type of stories my dad told there. If the people weren't that interesting, he might tell a story from his days herding sheep, he might not. If the company was really good, they'd get the grasshopper story. It wasn't til years later that I found out his trump card, the story he only used if the company was really raucous and I wasn't around was the 'Spud Howling' story, which I have heard since then and I know for a fact could make grown men blush. My ability to story tell was crafted and honed at or around that table.
Jason Jack Miller's Hellbender tells the story of Henry Collins, a young man trying to carve his own path away from his family and away from the West Virginian Appalachia mountains that raised him and trying to escape the grief of losing his younger sister, whose death was shrouded in mystery and a family curse going back to a generations long feud with the Lewises. As the title (taken from a river rafting term for a bend in the river that's hell to navigate) implies, this book takes you on a whirlwind journey. The tale whips you through rivers, valleys and forests written in a way that made them both feel familiar and fantastical at the same time. It starts with Henry burying his sister in one of the most beautifully sad first chapters I've ever read. When the main character decides to not wear shoes up the gravel path being the pall bearer for his sister's casket because of the Beatle's Abby Road album cover I knew I was in for something special.
After the funeral, Henry decides to escape the family and what he sees as a petty feud with the Lewises. But the past, in the form of his sister's roommate from college who happens to be Lewis kin named Alex, catches up with him. She's convinced Henry's sister's death was a murder and family happens to be behind it. What happens next is journey filled with old grudges, old magic, and good-old fashioned revenge but told in a new refreshing way.
These pages are filled with a visual poetry that instantly transported me into the laurel hells and incredible country side abound in this book. There were certain passages that I highlighted so I could go back into the beauty being described there. It won't soon leave me and I'm glad not to let it.
Now what does my hometown diner have to do with this book? Well, to me absolutely everything. Every character he crafted in those pages felt like they'd spilled out of that New Mexican diner and right into the Appalachian Valley, like I'd known them and the stories they had to tell my whole life. Henry's cousin Ben, an Afganistan war vet still shaken from battle (and one of my very favorite characters of the book) felt like one of the vets that kept court at the table. The character of Pap, Henry's grandfather and long suffering patriarch of the Collins clan, with a sadness and wisdom in his eyes, felt like my own grandfather. At certain times while reading through pap's story, I saw my grandfather's face and that filled me up with an immense pride and an immense sadness all at once. This is perhaps the highest honor I can bestow upon a character, that reading them brought my own grandad back to me so clearly.
This book is the best of the diner story filled with friends and fantastical yarns all at once. It probably won't save the world, but those folks at the table got tired of doing that after a spell anyway. Telling stories was a lot more fun. This book gets a solid A.
Now if you'll excuse, I'm off to buy Jason Jack Miller's The Devil and Preston Black and The Revelations of Preston Black and basically devour everything else the author has ever written. I'll be doing some other stuff regarding this book the whole week so keep it tuned here.