Readers who were hooked by Bob Sloan’s simple, organic style and the poetry of his prose in the short story collection Bearskin to Holly Fork: Stories of Appalachia will appreciate another side of the writer in his soon-to-be-released novel, Home Call.
The mood and flow of his short stories, incipient with detail, makes you want to read slow and savor every line and page, content to be carried to the story’s conclusion. In the novel, you have the same complex, introspective narrative but the book is truly a "page turner" as you get to know Jesse Surratt and are pulled into the world of this solitary single man who returned to a family farm after a trauma in his youth, but soon found that running away had neither lifted the pain nor resolved his old wounds.
Jesse Surratt left home when he was 17, to join the Navy and see the world. The reader learns early on that he did so after the comfort and safety he felt in his small town were destroyed by a trusted mentor. A victim of sexual assault, he escaped and put healing on hold while exposing himself to danger of another kind in war. He returned at the age of forty a changed man, a big man who kept others at bay with his size and surly disposition, who looked to avoid more fighting, afraid of an anger and rage that had never really dissipated.
For many years after his return, Jesse Surratt kept to himself with his animals on the forty acres where his father had farmed tobacco. His need for human contact showed little to others, perhaps only to his series of wives over the next sixteen years, women he bed, wed and ultimately divorced. Margaret, his third wife and the woman he truly loved, remains a friend throughout the story, appearing as both refuge and conscience. She encourages Jesse to let the man he is inside come through, without fear, and the reader suspects she either knows him a little better than he knows himself or if not, she’s prepared to tell him she does, which he tolerates time and again, perhaps because he suspects she may be right.
This intricate character living in seclusion at the age of 56, quietly farming tobacco on his land, jousting with a cantankerous old mule whose surly disposition is oddly agreeable, seems to have resigned himself to ending his days alone, until the mosaic of Jesse’s life shifts and his peaceful, predictable existence is irrevocably shattered. Or more precisely, shattered again, in a painful and wholly different way. As the tale unfurls, the dark side of Hawkes County is exposed when a young black woman’s assault and attempted murder on Surratt’s land lead him to discover a drug operation that has infused his home town with corruption that stretches beyond his, or anyone’s, wildest imaginings.
Home Call is not only a great read with an intricate plot, but it tackles in a quiet yet powerful way the stereotypes of the solitary Mountain Man, the small-minded, racist Southerner, and the "ignorant redneck," replacing them with real-life, multidimensional characters. Jesse Surratt, is painted by Sloan as intense, contemplative and open-minded, simultaneously a traditionalist and a modernist, a rich product of his Appalachian heritage, but someone who isn’t limited by it. His trauma, a sexual assault by another man, is dealt with in a true and dignified manner without bawdiness. This disturbing part of his past leads him to run from a community he fears has branded him and where he suffers deliberate reminders of the abuse, only to find that he may have unwittingly branded his community, in turn. When he vows to deal with his plight --not, at first, eagerly, but after much internal debate and turmoil -- he’s doing it for himself, for the young woman he has come to protect, and for his home town, as well, and his whole sense of rightness with the world. He faces the hardest of tests, as he struggles to believe again that good is possible in a world gone dark and sad. Through his eyes, we experience the whole gamut of emotion as he finds that the people he thought didn’t know him or accept him, people whom he thought wouldn’t understand, are there for him in ways he had never expected.
Sloan has a gift for complex threads that smolder throughout the plot, as well as creating simple yet elegant prose, and drawing interesting characters. Alma, the young black woman, is another example of how Sloan’s characters are anything but stereotypes--a theatre major, a blue-eyed black woman, Alma is tough and shameless, with maturity and worldliness beyond her 27 years. The story of how they deal with their trauma together is a compelling read and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you want to get to the climax, to know how the story resolves.
All told, this is a wonderful first novel by Sloan, a story that
reminds us that we can’t--and shouldn’t want to--escape our
past, that our heritage is something to embrace and rejoice in, and that
in the most unlikely corners of our past, in the darkest of times, we
may find the keys to strength, hope and redemption.
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Nicholasville KY 40356