Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The New Valley

Novellas

by Josh Weil

“Full of tenderness and looming menace . . . Gripping . . . Meticulous . . . Keep writing novellas, Josh Weil, because you write very good ones. You think on it, and we’ll watch.” —Anthony Doerr, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 368
  • Publication Date May 11, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4486-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date June 16, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1891-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $22.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date June 16, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9989-8
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

The three linked novellas that comprise National Book Award “5 Under 35” and Fulbright winner Josh Weil’s masterful debut bring us into America’s remote and often unforgiving backcountry, and delicately open up the private worlds of three very different men as they confront love, loss, and their own personal demons.

Set in the hardscrabble hill country between West Virginia and Virginia, The New Valley is populated by characters striving to forge new independent lives in the absence of those they have loved. Told in three varied and distinct voices—from a soft-spoken middle-aged beef farmer struggling to hold himself together after his dad’s suicide; to a health-obsessed single father desperate to control his reckless, overweight daughter; to a mildly retarded man who falls in love with a married woman intent on using him in a scheme that will wound them both—each novella is a vivid, stand-alone examination of Weil’s uniquely romanticized relationships. As the men battle against grief and solitude, their heartache slowly leads them all to commit acts that will bring both ruin and salvation.

Written with a deeply American tone, focused attention to story, and veneration for character, The New Valley is a tender exploration of resilience, isolation, and the deep, consuming ache for human connection. Weil’s empathetic, meticulous prose makes this is a debut of inescapable power.

Tags Literary

Praise

“I was captivated and moved by each of these finely made novellas. The quiet, mostly ordinary lives of the characters who populate The New Valley shine with a strange and intense luminosity that is at times heartbreaking, at other times triumphant. There is a magic and gentle beauty in this book that makes me remember why I had always wanted to be a writer.” —Tim O’Brien

“Weil’s debut is a stark and haunting triptych of novellas set in the rusted-out hills straddling the border between the Virginias. . . . Taken individually, each novella offers its own tragic pleasure, but together, the works create a deeply human landscape that delivers great beauty.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Full of tenderness and looming menace . . . Gripping . . .Weil meticulously imagines people and their histories, and presents them as a product of their places. This is perhaps the hardest thing for a fiction writer of any age, working in any form, to accomplish. . . . Keep writing novellas, Josh Weil, because you write very good ones. You think on it, and we’ll watch.” —Anthony Doerr, The New York Times Book Review

“A restive nobility binds the sorrowful protagonists of Weil’s stellar debut collection of novellas, each a tender anthem to a starkly unforgiving Virginia countryside and the misguided determination of its most forsaken residents. . . . Throughout, Weil limns a rugged emotional landscape every bit as raw and desolate as the land that inspired it, delivering an eloquent portrait of people who defiantly cling to a fierce independence.” —Carol Haggas, Booklist

“Not since Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff has a book stepped on my windpipe this way. . . . The writing is acute. . . . The New Valley opens up a chasm so dark and beautiful you start to see colors in its depths.” —16 Blocks Magazine

“[A] meticulous and imaginative portrayal of characters shaped by rural life.” —Narrative magazine (Writers to Watch)

“Josh Weil’s debut book The New Valley has a sense of the notable on every page. This is the very rare but clear case of the sky being the limit for a young author.” —Jim Harrison

“[The New Valley] renders the mysteriousness of the human experience in delicious detail: every shaft of sunlight, each well-oiled bolt, memories, dreams, and conversations—all hover within delightful reach, products of a ghostly place only resting partly in the imagination.” —Orion

“[Weil’s] language is exquisite, his sentences glorious. In fact, [he] writes the kinds of sentences you want to go sniff and then slosh around in your mouth for a while before heading into the next paragraph. The kind that make you set the book down and think, the kind that can break your heart with their truthful simplicity. . . . Refreshing and engaging.” —Sherri Flick, Ploughshares

“[The New Valley] is quite an achievement. . . . Josh Weil uses beautiful, stunning words to define men who don’t have the first idea how to define themselves. . . . In sentence after sentence, on page after page, Weil hammers out these men on nothing less than an anvil of language. You can almost feel the searing heat as the tales are pounded into shape. So much seems to have been stripped back, the superfluous peeled away until almost the bare skeleton of story and character remain. Yet he leaves us telling details too—and they sing. In high contrast to the hard edges of these stories, the author sprinkles in gentle, striking images. . . . There’s an enviable depth to these characters, a layering of ideas that brings them to life in ways that might very well surprise even them. The tales walk up to you with confidence and look you square in the eye, unflinching. I am here, they say. Take me or leave me. The novellas aren’t like the men they portray; it feels more like they are the men they portray. In langauge that’s sure, quick, and almost magical in its ability conjure dimension from flat paper, Josh Weil has created portraits of hard lives that will stand the test of time.” —Tony Buchsbaum, January magazine (online)

“Critics claiming that American short fiction is on life-support should sample the healing elixir of Josh Weil’s breakout collection. In this mesmerizing debut, Weil offers up three razor-sharp novellas . . . that ring sincere and rarely hit a false note. . . . These are quiet stories of struggle, survival, heartbreak and grace. . . . Readers will find glimpses of Bobbie Ann Mason’s depictions of the small-town poor mixed with Annie Proulx’s evocative landscape language. . . . [Weil’s] writing is understated [and] as strong as steel.” —Cody Corliss, Charleston Gazette-Mail

“Weil’s prose is quiet and assured . . . These stories are real heartbreakers, ringing true with loss and loneliness. . . . Finely crafted . . . Unforgettable.” —Susan Larson, New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Keenly observed . . . Absolutely and utterly devastating . . . Weil’s major talent—and it is major—lies in making the gears and levers of the book operate seamlessly, like the engines and equipment that litter its pages. He writes with little pretense or adornment, content to let the story come to him. . . . The New Valley does not feel exploitative or condescending. Every word feels necessary. Weil’s keen observational eye brings the smallest details of the lives of these three men to light, and their acuity makes his other analyses gleam with truth. . . . Weil makes the reader aware of [his characters’] humanity, and their emotions and heartbreak give this book a quiet heaviness, like the Blue Ridge Mountains that loom in the background.” —James Scott, The Rumpus

“Josh Weil is a terrific young writer. His sense of what is crucial and dramatic make his stories deeply alive.” —John Casey

“With The New Valley, Josh Weil makes a spectacular entry in the art of American storytelling. His rendering of place is strong as Flannery O’Connor’s; his engagement with the moral landscape as sure as Cormac McCarthy’s. In their contemplation of the past, Weil’s characters—earthy, scrappy, often comic—seek restoration. These three fine novellas remind us with wit and energy that we are all in for repair.” —Maureen Howard

“In these three beautiful novellas, the sky above and the soil below bear witness to stories so elemental and stunningly intricate that they seem carved from hickory. Weil carefully roots out these men from their hiding places, watching over his flock of lost souls with unbounded empathy. . . . It’s hard sculpting beauty out of so much mud. Writing about plain-mouthed, flawed, of-the-earth characters requires understanding, much compassion, and a kind heart. . . . [Weil] gives voice to those without, to those entombed on forgotten hillsides, to those orphaned and tending calves and tractors, reminding us that no matter how isolated, how lonely, tender hearts burn everywhere, they burn bright, and they burn on.” —Don Waters, Believer

“While I read these novellas, I realized at some point early on I kept holding my breath. Why? Because Josh Weil’s stories are about people who tell no one anything, ever—men who know more cattle than they do people, and who trust the cattle more. Men who shrug off their heartbreak, and die with their secrets. By turns sweet, funny, heartbreaking, and terrifying, Josh Weil makes his quietly powerful debut.” —Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh

“I’ve savored [The New Valley‘s] beautiful prose twice, dog-earing more pages than I’ve left alone. Its surprising and dead-on dialogue and spare language depict Weil’s rural Virginian landscape and the isolated, reticent men it shapes—men who are no kin to grace, aching as they do for human connection while they plow through their lonely lives. . . . [Weil] is the real deal. He stirs something deep. . . . His narration hits serious, immediate, and personal. . . . [His] skill at strange is our gift: He gives us people we do not recognize, will never know, but then bit by bit we begin to see the resemblances between them and us, rather than the differences. . . . Weil’s patient honing in on his people’s quiet desperation allows him to hone in on rural Appalachia, too. Page after page, he brings to life the sights and sounds and smells of his fictional valley, these sensory details coming together to give flesh and voice to the region’s physical-cum-emotional reality. . . . Damn fine storytelling, the kind that isn’t concerned with perfection but rather the pursuit of slow, gentle, haunting grace, grace that turns the world around until it is new, until it hurts us again as only grace can.” —Stacy Muszynski, The Collagist

“Beware these seemingly quiet novellas: they hit hard. Josh Weil has created devastatingly memorable characters of people rarely noticed and never loved. With remarkable skill and insight, he has located the spot in the human heart where loneliness resides. Exquisitely written, deeply felt, and haunting, The New Valley is a beautiful book.” —Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of The Scenic Route

“In Josh Weil’s soulful debut fiction, hard, wintry men bring the near-dead back to life. A steer, a tractor, a woman bolt upright, clearly heart-charged by the obsessive attentions of these cut-off men. The prose unfailingly befits the action and is percussively wrought and rich or else plain and grave but always deeply moving.” —Christine Schutt, author of All Souls and Florida, a National Book Award Finalist

“This is beautiful, heartrending fiction. With deep pathos and stunning imagination, Weil gives a powerful voice to lives too often ignored and throws brilliant light on places in our country—and our hearts—that are too often in the dark. The New Valley marks the arrival of an important new writer in American letters.” —Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus Christi: Stories

“Weil’s domain is the parallel world of rural America that still exists just outside the swaddled precincts of the twenty-first century. His prose—taut, precise, as unflinching as it is tender, particularly in ‘Ridge Weather’—suggests a strong new voice in American fiction.” —Mark Slouka, author of The Visible World

“The three novellas in Josh Weil’s The New Valley are set in the hardscrabble hill country straddling Virginia and West Virginia. The male characters are all grappling with loneliness after losing loved ones. Their lives are hard physically and emotionally; they’re unable to reach out to those around them, including lifelong friends. While hauntingly sad, there is redemption in these beautifully written stories.” —Nancy Olson, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, NC

Awards

Winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction
A New York Times Editors’ Choice
A Largehearted Boy blog Favorite Novel of the Year
A National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” selection
The Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award in Fiction
A Finalist for the Virginia Literary Award in Fiction

Excerpt

Ridge Weather

It was the hay bales that did it. The men and women who knew Osby least, who nodded at him from passing trucks or said “Hey” while scanning cans of soup in the Mic-or-Mac, they might not have seen the change come over him. But the few who knew him a little better would have noticed Osby’s usual quietness grown heavier, that he stuffed his hands in his sweatshirt pocket a little more often. They would have chalked it up to him missing his father, figured it for nothing more than a rebalancing of the weight of a life that suddenly contained one instead of two people. They would have been wrong.

The truth was, it didn’t even make sense to Osby. How could rolls of old dead grass scare him so? What was the sense behind it being that—the sight of those wasted bales on that wasted government land—that finally dug from him his tears? But it was the bales. And afterwards, he had known only that it was going to get worse.

In those weeks, as the memory of old Cortland Caudill receded to the horizons of peoples’ minds, even those passing Osby in the supermarket aisles would have felt the sadness still hanging off him. Though it probably would have seemed pretty normal to them. In a place like Eads County, people sometimes get like Osby did. They’re scattered all over the valley, hidden from each other by the old ridges and thick woods, by log walls of age-sunk cabins, new ranch-house brick, by paint-peeling clapboard and trailer home siding so thin the propane bill is twice what it should be, never mind the electricity for the glowing space heaters that struggle in each room.
The First Congregational Church of Harts Run had always looked pretty to Osby. Some early mornings, when he was out on Route 33 before the sun had scaled the ridge, he would round the bend and see the church way up ahead, perched at the top of the hill as if God had put the limestone there as a plinth. Once in a long while—it had happened just a few times in all his thirty-eight years—the sun would rise exactly as Osby came barreling around the corner, and the church would light up right before his eyes. Times like that, he would take a sip of coffee, turn the radio down so it blended with the rumble of the Sierra’s engine, and imagine it was his headlights, and not the sun, that pulled the church out of the half-dark. He liked to pretend that if he hadn’t come along just then, the church would have stayed dim all day. That, as much as anything else, was why he chose to hold the funeral there.

The day of the service, it was warm for January in the hills. When Osby arrived at the church, about an hour before everyone else, he swung open the truck door and held out a hand, palm up in the air, gazing at the sky, testing the sun like most people would rain. Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, he thought to himself. If it kept up like this, the pastures would stay clear of snow; he’d save on hay. He wondered if the ground up at the family cemetery would have thawed a little if he’d waited a day on the funeral. Not much, he decided. It was always colder on Bowmans Ridge. Even on those fall days, years ago, when he was a kid and they used to go up there for picnics. Earlier that morning, breaking up the frozen topsoil with a pickax, the memory had come to him: his father, shivering as he walked beneath the old apple tree, over dry leaves between the graves, searching for a good patch of sunlight in which to spread the blanket.

Now, Osby switched on the radio and sat in the truck cab, waiting for the DJ to hand over the weather report. Every autumn, as far back as he could remember—five years old? four?—he would climb the apple tree, shimmy out on the twisted limbs, and shake down a fast thumping of fruit. From twenty feet up, he would watch his father wander below, stooping to pick up the few good ones, carrying them back to Osby’s mother. She would sit in the sun, soft and edgeless in a thick, lilac sweater, her knees drawn to her chest, gazing over the valley. His father would crouch next to her, peeling an apple with his pocketknife. He would hand her slices. She would reach up and take them from his fingers.

The year before she died, his mother was too weak from the chemotherapy to handle the rough ride up to Bowmans Ridge. So it was just Osby and his father standing by the truck, the breeze between them making noise in the leaves. After a while, his father strode to the tree, yanked an apple off, came back. Osby listened to him chew and watched the furious movement of his jaw. Halfway through the apple, Cortland snapped open his pocketknife and cut off a slice. Carefully, Osby took it from the offered palm. They looked out at the valley. Osby was twelve.

In the truck cab, the DJ blared on. Glad of the noise, Osby shook his head, smiled a little. What a strange man his father had been.

Forty-one degrees and sunny, according to the radio.

Osby grinned. He’d figured out long ago it was about three degrees cooler up in the hills. He glanced around the empty parking lot, as if looking for someone who might congratulate him. There weren’t even any tires grinding up the gravel yet.

The church never did get more than half full, but the minister gave as good a sermon as could have been expected. Some of it was pure bull—how Cortland had stayed by his wife to the end; how to his last days he had never questioned God’s will. Some of it was half-right—how Osby’s father had worked all his life to make the farm prosperous; he had never meddled in business that wasn’t his; he had single-handedly raised his son into a fine man. And some of it was dead on—how Cortland Caudill had loved his cows.

Osby figured he couldn’t have done much better. His father had not been a communicative man. He wasn’t a bad man, not even a bad father. He wasn’t mean to anyone; he just wasn’t especially nice to anyone, either. Outside, melted snow dripped off the church eves. It sounded like spring. Osby felt he ought to miss his father, but he didn’t, not really. Neither, he guessed, did the others in the church. His father hadn’t really cared to make many friends.

Osby looked around at the thirty-odd people, most of them his father’s age. They looked peaceful. The minister didn’t mention the one thing that would have made everybody uneasy, didn’t even acknowledge it with any special condolences to Osby. So there wasn’t much to be upset about in the room. Swaths of sunlight streamed through the windows, warm like only strong sun through glass on a winter’s afternoon can be. Inside, Osby guessed, it was a comfortable sixty-nine, seventy degrees.

At the end, the minister asked if anyone wanted to say something, and the whole roomful of people looked at Osby. He wished they’d go back to sitting happily in the sunlight. The minister shut the Bible very quietly and smiled right at him. Osby smiled back, but felt just afterwards that it was the wrong thing to do. He glanced at Carl and, sitting at Carl’s side, Lynne and their two boys further down the pew. Carl scratched his newly trimmed beard, jowls shaking, and flicked a glance back at Osby. It was a look Osby knew: the worry that came over his friend when Carl realized Osby was going to say something.

Osby wasn’t considered the smartest man in Eads County. But then no one, not even Carl, knew him well enough to realize that he wasn’t all that far from it either. His problem was that people could hear only what he said, and not what he thought. His words almost always came out saying something other than what he had intended; and, even when he did get them right, they were usually the last thought of a sequence. Without anyone knowing the process he’d taken to get there, what he finally got to rarely made much sense. Over the years, it had worn him down, so now he seldom said very much of anything to anybody.

Slowly, Osby stood up, taking as long about it as he could, letting the pew’s groans and creaks fill the silence. He stood there for a moment, looking at his cracked, red hands pressed against the edge of the pew in front of him. He tried to think of what his father would have liked him to say, tried to think of what Cortland Caudill would have said himself, and then, failing at that, Osby just tried to remember something good about his dad. The thing that came to him wasn’t one memory, but a series of them: his father trying out names for the new calves while clanking around under the dump truck, or while picking through clothes at the church donations store in Ripplemead, or ruining their hunting by calling out potential calf-christenings—”Woodrow?” “Lloyd?” “Skeeter?”—from his tree stand to Osby’s. Years and years of it, from as far back as Osby could remember. He knew there were other things that made his father happy, but he couldn’t recall them.

“Well,” he finally said, “Dad thought an awful lot of his beef. Once he give a calf its name, that’s what he called it. Heifers, cows, bulls, named them all like they was dairy cows. Never knowed anyone else to do that. I don’t believe he once named a calf the same, neither. Not in all his years.” It wasn’t until after he said it that Osby realized just how incredible that was. “We got some cows been calfin’ eight, nine years. I guess they’ll miss him.” He thought his father would have liked to leave it at that, but it seemed wrong, so Osby said, “I guess we all will.”

At the muddy jeep trail up to Bowmans Ridge, they slid the casket out of the hearse and lifted it into Osby’s pickup. Anyone with a car left it at the side of 247 and piled into the trucks. The wind was blowing up at the Caudill cemetery, and it was colder, like Osby had known it would be. They didn’t take long getting Cortland in the ground. Everyone was glad to get back in the trucks and drive, caravan style, into Pembroke for a late lunch at the Buttercup.

By the time they were done and driving back, the day was on its way out and Osby was starting to feel the letdown that hits after an event, just because it’s over. His tie crammed in his shirt pocket and lumpy against his chest, he drove behind Carl, a few other trucks and cars following him, rising and dropping over swells.

As they neared Harts Run, the vehicles turned off onto side roads, one by one, leaving dust where the gravel spilled out onto 33. As he passed by Alva’s store, the last car behind him pulled over at the pumps. The road, suddenly empty in his rearview mirror, seemed to lengthen behind him. A few miles later, the taillights on Carl’s truck glowed and his friend’s thick arm jutted out the driver’s side window, hand casually open. Osby raised a couple fingers off his steering wheel and watched the mud-freckled Ford turn off onto 288. Nothing in his windshield now but the wide valley and the long black line of asphalt cutting through it. Well, Osby thought, that’s that.

Before going home, he decided to check on each of the five small herds they ran. In his head, he corrected himself: the herds I run. He wound along through lingering patches of sunlight and the sudden, cold shadows behind the hills, starting with the herd furthest from home, the field his dad—now he—rented from Sheldon Ballard alongside the government land. The ground was freezing up again, and the truck rocked and bumped over the pasture. Spread out below the hill, the cattle turned toward the engine noise all at once, the way a flock of birds rises in unison at some imperceptible signal. Osby got out and bunched his thick neck a little further into his collar. It was going cold, fast. The sunlight was at its deepest orange, just before it went red. It always looked to Osby like it should be at its warmest then, and it seemed to him a major flaw, a failing of someone’s, somewhere, that the light contained no heat at all. He watched the cows as the shadows crept out of the swales and covered the herd. He had just shy of a quarter of his beef pastured in this field: twenty-eight reddish-brown cows, four of them already calved. Mostly Angus-Lemosine, some with a little Hereford in them. No heifers; the heifers were in the two fields closest to the house so he could keep an eye on them. He and his father bred all their bulls and they ran them regular. They had a two-year-old Black Angus in with this bunch. At the fringes of the herd, Osby spotted a new dropped calf suckling from its mother. She was a good cow, had given them eight or nine calves—those wide Lemosine hips—and now he tried to remember what his father would have called her. The name didn’t come to him. He scanned the rest of the herd, looking for signs of compaction, foot evil, making sure all the calves were there. A few of the cows were showing bags beneath their tails and he watched them negotiate their legs under swollen bellies. One or two looked as if they might drop their calves anytime, but they were old pros. The swath of hay he’d rolled out that morning was still catching the sun at the top of the hill. Everything looked fine. Everything looked the same.

By the time he got home, it was fully dark. The moon hadn’t yet risen. There were no lights on in his house. He drifted past the driveway, wishing there was one more pasture to check on or something he had to do in town. Maybe he’d drive over to Carl’s place, just to say hello; it had been years since they’d sat on Carl’s back porch, drinking beer and throwing sticks for his bird dogs. As he rounded the bend, his headlights sucked the Old House’s mailbox out of the night. It had collapsed against the giant chestnut stump and the letters his grandmother had carefully painted were half gone; they read he Ca ills, now. He braked, his ribs suddenly feeling too small for all the stuff that had to fit in his chest. Slowly, he turned onto the dirt. A few feet up, he stopped. The truck idled under him. Grass and weeds had grown between the tire tracks and last spring’s rains had gouged the driveway. Up the hill, beyond the reach of the headlights, the Old House stood blackly against the stars, a hole in the sky. His home, the newer house he and his dad had lived in, had been built nearly a century ago, but the original family place, the Old House, was twice that age, the walls in its living room still made of logs from the homesteaders’ one-room cabin. After his grandmother died, his father used the house for storage: bags of fertilizer, car batteries, cattle medicines.

Osby flicked on his brights. The windows that still had glass flared. He hadn’t been in there since the day he found his father. He could make out the glinting shape of Cortland’s pickup, parked at the top of the driveway. The front door to the house was still open. He’d forgotten to shut it. Or the ambulance guys had. Or the cops. They had come, looked things over. There wasn’t much guessing to do. Osby asked them not to clean it up, said he wanted to do it himself. It would help him seal the thing shut, he said, put a cap on it. When the neighbors offered to take care of things, he told them he’d already scrubbed and swept and burned what had to be burned. Truth was, he hadn’t touched a thing in there. The idea of going back in made his bowels go watery.

The truck sputtered, and he gave it a little gas, shook a cigarette out of a pack of Winstons, and sat, smoking. He knew he ought to go up there and close that door.

When Osby’s mother died, his father hadn’t let anyone help them take the body to the funeral home. They had wrapped her in the sheets and carried her downstairs, his father holding her under her arms, Osby clutching her cold ankles. She had smelled like old cabbage. Her body sagged, heavy as wet sand. His thin twelve-year-old forearms strained and he struggled to keep his fingers locked around her legs. Halfway down the stairs, he dropped her. Her heels thwacked the hard wood step, and he had thought how much that would hurt if she was alive. Outside, they hoisted her into the pickup and drove into town. His father hadn’t even let people gather in the house after the funeral. He had refused the casseroles and cakes they brought.

The next Saturday, Osby had helped him with an excavating job and they had sat in the bulldozer’s shovel, out of the cold wind, passing a thermos of steaming coffee between each other. “Ain’t going to have ’em walking all over our place,” Osby’s father had said. “Big show.” And a week later, in the kitchen, digging shotgun pellets out of a rabbit with the tip of a knife: “When I go, I don’t want no noise about it. Don’t want the whole of ’em traipsing around, tearing up the driveway, snooping around the Old House. Just dig a hole and dump me in.”

When he’d finished the cigarette, Osby rolled down his window, tossed out the butt, shoved down on the clutch, and put the truck in first. Behind the Old House, Bowmans Ridge, solid and black, smothered the bottom edge of the sky. After a while, his left calf muscle started to shake. He shifted into reverse, backed up onto the road, and drove home.

Quiet smothered the bang of the truck door almost as soon as he shut it behind him. He could hear the night animals moving around, small birds, opossums, squirrels, making crackling noises too big for them in the dry leaves. They went silent as his feet made their noise from the truck to the porch.

Inside, the house had gone cold. Osby clomped into the kitchen, opened the flue on the woodstove, and stirred up the remaining coals, watching them feed on the draft. When they were glowing, he shoved a couple overnight logs on top, waited for them to catch, and then shut the stove up and let it go to work. He scanned the twenty-odd cans lined up on the kitchen counter. He and his father never bothered putting the soup in the pantry. That was for the things they bought on a whim and ended up never looking at again, things like cake mixes or cloves of garlic, things that needed what Osby and his father called “major preparation.” Cans of soup, cans of beans, cans of cranberry sauce, jars of pickles; those things were useful; they stayed on the counter where they could be got at.

Osby chose a can of chicken and dumplings, shaking his head a little at all the clam chowders. His father had loved the stuff. Osby couldn’t stomach it. Now he was stuck with a dozen cans. He rinsed a saucepan under the faucet, using his thumb to rub away most of the crust left from last night’s soup, dumped in tonight’s chicken and dumpling, lit the stove burner with a match, and got out the bowls and spoons.

The kitchen opened up right onto the living room, and Osby went in there, turned on the TV, and watched the weather report while he unbuttoned his shirt and tugged it off his arms. Not wanting to put his good shirt on the floor with the rest of his clothes, he held it in one hand while he took off his shoes and pants, and then held those bunched in the other arm, while he listened to the forecast for the next day. There was a slight chance of snow.

“Hope not till afternoon,” Osby said aloud to the empty house, feeling foolish immediately afterwards. When he heard the pot spitting soup, he hurried into the kitchen, dumped his clothes on the counter, and emptied the chicken and dumplings into a bowl. For a second, he stood, perplexed, staring at the second bowl. He didn’t remember taking out two. He put the extra bowl and spoon away and took his soup into the living room to finish watching the local news. It was still cold in the house—the heat from the woodstove never really reached all the way into the living room—and he turned on the electric space heater, pulled it close to the couch, sat in his underwear and T-shirt and the brown socks that looked strange to him on his feet, slurping the soup while the space heater’s warmth started to tingle on his skin.

An hour or so later, during the ads between two sitcoms, he glanced to his side to see if his father had fallen asleep yet. The other end of the ratty brownish-orange couch was, of course, empty. Seeing it, he tried to feel whether he missed the old man. He couldn’t tell. He lay down, stretching his legs out all the way along the couch. True, it felt odd to do that. He tried to picture his dad sitting there where his feet were now. It should have been easy; after all, Cortland had sat there nodding off practically every evening since Osby was a kid. But he couldn’t picture him. When he looked back at the TV, he thought he saw his father’s face looking in at him through the window, not as he looked in life, but as Osby had found him three days ago in the Old House: his lower jaw and half of his right cheek blown off, one eye exploded in its socket.

Osby made himself stay still and stare at the window, where there was nothing but his own reflection, until his heart had gone back to thumping like normal. Then he scraped up the last of the soup, sighed, and carried the bowl to the sink. As he clinked it against the other dishes, he had a sudden urge to wash them all, to wipe down the counters, get the place clean. He filled the sink, watching the steam billow up through the soap bubbles.

Through the window, he could see the occasional pair of headlights drift along Route 33, a couple miles off down the valley. After they were out of sight, he could still follow their progress for a while, watching for the patches of hillsides swept briefly by the faint yellow glow. He wondered if he was going to be lonely now. He didn’t see why he should be; his father had never been much for company. He didn’t think he was lonely.

Reading Group Guide

Readers’ Guide by Barbara Putnam

“Ridge Weather”

1. The trilogy of novellas creates a saga of the land and its people. How would you describe the world that Weil creates? Are there plot links or echoes of similar themes in the three stories?

2. What are the results of a hard life in near isolation in this unyielding country? Might a closer community have created easier warmth and better dinner-table conversation? Are there any people with these gifts in the stories?

3. Formal education has certainly not been available to the characters, yet some have remarkable competency in practical matters. Examples?

4. Are there moral imperatives in the trilogy? What behavior is criticized by a narrator or other character? What do we learn about tolerance? As we read about the stubborn aged, the morbidly obese, the mentally impaired, would we do a better job of living with these people than their families do?

5. Does the author provide different versions of the truth? Is reality something to be personally reconstructed by characters as well as by the reader? Did you find that your interpretations shifted as you proceeded in a novella? Can you give examples? In “Sarverville Remains,” Geoffrey says to Brian/Waker, “You just know your half of the story. And I know the same is true for me” (p. 304).

6. What differentiates Osby from his father as recalled in these pages? For instance, “His father would have just put a bullet in it” (p. 48). Are the two men alike in any ways?

7. “Osby wasn’t considered the smartest man in Eads County” (p. 7). The kids on the school bus “looked at him the way they look at adults. That still felt odd to him” (p. 20). What has kept Osby somehow frozen in time? Have there been any women in his life? Has he ever left home? Do you think his father’s dying will liberate him? Might he begin to live in the present?

8. How does the outside world penetrate the story? Consider the “Save the Children” pamphlet. And the arrival of Jim and his dreams for the Asian crop kenaf. What is the effect of Whistler’s Meadow, the hippy commune?

9. In a story largely about loss and loneliness, why does Osby reject Jim’s friendship and nurturing? Could Jim evolve into a son figure for Osby?

10. How is Deb from the gas station brilliantly portrayed? What are some of the details that create this absolutely original woman with her sadness, generosity, and fantasies? In contrast, what are Osby’s fantasies? What could he do to earn the declaration, “I don’t know what I’d do without you” (p. 67)? Do we also think of Osby’s imagined disasters for his cows, predicaments only he could help? In difficult calving, “the irrefutable fact that a living thing would not exist if it weren’t for him” (p. 29).

11. When Osby retreats to the Old House in the snowstorm, what kind of sanctuary is he seeking? Is he given any revelation?

12. How does Osby resolve the problem of the dying steer? How are the fates of Osby, the steer, and his father intertwined? Are we looking at a shared miracle?

13. Do you see in “Ridge Weather” a hymn of praise for the land? Not only has it been home for multiple generations of Caudills, but how does it have an inestimable value of its own? Waste of land is sinful, as in the pasture land taken over by the government. The old hay bales once “had been large and round, but they’d sat there for almost three years now and had sunk in on themselves, decomposing, just mounds of rotten grass. . . . Now, what had been a smooth field of good grass was mostly scrub: junipers, cedars, broom sedge, briars that were getting worse all the time” (p. 30). Is there a note of hope at the end? What do you think Osby has learned?

“Stillman Wing”

1. How are Stillman and the Deutz linked? What propels this “mountain-raised, long-working, hard-minded, fear-driven man” (p. 87) to steal and restore the tractor? A forced retirement and shaking his fist at fate? An offering—and proving something—to Caroline? “There are days when the world outside his shop seems spinning too quickly for him to get his hands on it, and he comes in, and the Deutz is there like a bolt right through the axis of it all” (p. 117).

2. Caroline accuses her father of iron control. How does his health obsession reveal his character? His diet and exercise fetishes? Are his love and concern for his daughter heartfelt? To the point of sprinkling seaweed on her cereal and delivering it to her in the bath? Do you think it is old age and diminishing blood flow that accentuate his need to control?

3. In this land of elemental struggle, some events recall biblical catastrophes. One thinks of the mysterious slaughter of all the Demastus cattle (pp. 94-95). Recall the grackles smothering the trees “like some biblical plague” (p. 105). Does Caroline, bent on self-destruction, create her own Sodom and Gomorrah? Might she herself call it survival? And self-medication? Does her total lack of discipline reflect a perversion of Stillman’s “carefulness”?

4. “Risks? . . . What would you know about risks, Dad? You’ve never took a risk in your life” (p. 115). (Can this still be said at the end of the story?) What might have made Stillman such a careful man? What does he recall of his parents? (Who besides them has abandoned him?) When told the story of her grandparents’ death, Caroline, age six, said, “You don’t look sad . . . you look angry” (p. 130). Even in old age, Stillman is haunted. The plane circling his workshop, real or hallucination? “Something in him iced over. He could feel it spread like frost dusting his bones” (p. 122). As he then tries to remember—and to feel—he goes to the cemetery. Are we reminded of several characters in King Lear? Of “unaccommodated man”? “Turning the basin upside down, he held it over his head and got out. The rain beat above him. It was cold on his fingers. He splashed around the car, crouched beside the fence, scrunched his eyes at the chiseled stones. He tried to summon some kind of sadness” (p. 131). Later, thinking of his “one-time nearly wife . . . the anger, and fear, and regret boil to the surface like pot scum. Outside the snow covers everything in quiet. He will sleep. He will rejuvenate and heal and sleep” (p. 139). It is a stunning picture of old age and despair. In King Lear, how does Cordelia’s standing up to her tyrannical father (and later reconciling) compare to Caroline’s role? What other characters in novels or myth does Stillman make you think of, characters at the very verge of chasm or apocalypse?

5. How does the past become present in “Stillman Wing”? Think of the pond at the commune. And the “rusted hulk of a B-26” (p. 164). The ringing of Old Les Pfersick’s bell. Other instances? Ginny’s pregnancy?

6. What are some of the surprising acts of generosity in the story? Do you recall the surprise posthumous gifts of old Pfersick? And that of the Booe child?

7. How do you understand the end of the novella? “. . . he felt ready, unafraid, even eager to see at last what a new valley might look like. . .” (p. 187). After a heroic journey, has Stillman achieved his quest?

8. What do the time warps mean in the story? At one moment Stillman is waiting for Caroline to pick up the phone at the commune. The next ring he hears is from a California orphanage, an event of forty-one years ago (p. 154). And there is the phantom plane. Other examples? Are these signs of deterioration and mental disorder? Or are they times when Stillman is trying to integrate disparate, jarring events in his life?

9. “These were a strange people who lived down there, a people not of this land, not of this valley. This valley was a place of homes scattered far from homes, and meant to be that way, of lives built around cattle more than conversation, timed to rhythms of the crops, not the need to keep pace with other people’s heartbeats. This was a place where people knew how to keep apart” (p. 162). In vivid contrast, how does the commune serve as both refuge for the living and the dying? What are the ironic links between pollution and healing, or at least comforting?

“Sarverville Remains”

1. What is Geoffrey’s motive for writing? Is he seeking some unity with Linda’s husband? Is it expiation he’s after? Does the second-person narrative pull in the reader effectively? Is Waker the only (captive) audience Geoffrey could hope for?

2. Talk about Linda and Geoffrey’s relationship. “You aren’t like anybody else, she said” (p. 276). Does the man-boy give her some self-respect? And on Geoffrey’s side, he says, “She’s the first who ever made me feel full growed” (p. 219).

3. In the coon episode, what propels Geoffrey to commit this neighborhood chaos and carnage? At the point of Roy’s gun and rage, how does Geoffrey perform a Herculean labor, like cleaning out the Augean stables?

4. What do we learn about Roy at the dump? His nostalgic dreams of childhood? His capacity for “magical” moments (p. 260)? Comment on his question to Geoffrey: “You ever hear the one about the guy that brings his retarded buddy on a hunting trip?” (p. 262).

5. “Most like you think there ain’t no Sarverville at all” (p. 263). Talk about the range of views of the Sarvers, before and after their fifty years out in the wilderness on their own. An Eden? Is it a deliberate rejection of conventional behavior that actually seems to work? Ma B says “all of them diminished . . . but they was diminished only in the narrow sight of them who was so alike they could be swapped from wife to husband or job to job and wouldn’t nobody know the difference” (p. 292). What were the special gifts of the Sarvers?

6. “It was Ma B teached me how to give good hugs” (p. 281).What else has she given Geoffrey? Is it possible that living with her and her brood was the last time he felt normal? “They was all diminished” (p. 288). How does her insisting on “Yes Ma’am” relate to her advice about how he should treat Linda?

7. If we read “Sarverville Remains” as a fable, does it make you think about other stories about “diminished people”? I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool? The film King of Hearts? Others? What truths of the heart are the writers trying to alert us to?

8. Is the story set up, with all its time shifts and misperceptions, to make the reader share Geoffrey’s confusion about Brian and Waker? Do we begin to question individual perspectives and their limitations?

9. What is Jackie’s idea of a good life for Geoffrey? “You remember how it was. Things was good. You got a good job. People like you. Like to watch you wave and wave back . . . It’s the way it’s meant to be” (p. 310). But Roy says “. . . just let him be . . . alive” (p. 310). What do these attitudes reveal about Jackie and Roy? And expectations for people who are different?

10. “I wanted to do it right,” I said. “I wanted to have it out like growed men.” But Linda says, “Grown men don’t do it like that, Geoffrey” (p. 335). What is it to be a grown man in this story? Do we see any? “Why did He let her break them rules and kiss me like I was a full adult?” (p. 336)

11. Are the land and his heritage to be Geoffrey’s salvation? Has he made the right decision? Do you think he will continue to write?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Close Range, Heart Songs and Other Stories, and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx; Returning to Earth and Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison; Affliction by Russell Banks; Winesburgh, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; Plainsong by Kent Haruf; The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry; A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers; Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison; Child of God by Cormac McCarthy; Wise Blood, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor