Home Call -- A Novel of Kentucky  by  Bob Sloan
Eastern Kentucky setting is familiar, but story is new

Native returns to a changed landscape

After a career in the Navy and three failed marriages, Jesse Surratt returns to his native Eastern Kentucky to maintain his family farm and to foster his own loneliness and isolation. Although he feels called to return, he doesn't really know why. He is, after all, returning to a place where at seventeen, he suffered a humiliation so searing that all he wanted to do was run away from Hawkes County and never come back.

But come back he does, and soon shapes his life into a "cycle of rising early and working hard enough to sufficiently exhaust himself that sleep came easily."

He takes comfort in knowing that everything he can see from his front porch belongs to him and tells himself he is returning to the simple lifestyle of earlier generations. He carves because he grandfather did, and cans vegetables with his mother's recipes. With his 56th birthday approaching, he congratulates himself that farm work has restored him physically. He leaves the farm only when he has to, and he views the residents of nearby Midland as acquaintances rather than friends, always conscious that the community must remember what happened to him when he was seventeen.

Jesse has let his third marriage dissolve because he dismissed as "psychobabble" his wife's efforts to bring him to terms with how tragically and unnecessarily he had allowed the early trauma to determine his whole personality. In his heart he realizes she's right but feels powerless to change, knowing he will turn to the bottle of bourbon under the kitchen sink instead: "He'd drink against isolation and conviction his life had been years of waste, capped by the pointless return to the farm."

Whether the farm is an Eden or an escape becomes moot, however, because events around him soon shatter Jesse's isolation and force him to deal with darker forces than he has ever known. When he rescues a young African American woman from being burned to death on land adjacent to his farm, Jesse is forced to acknowledge the reality of a community, a whole region, engulfed in the drug trade. The rescued woman, Alma Washington, quickly enlarges Jesse's vision to encompass a world not of quaint moonshiners winked at by local sheriffs, but of an interwoven corruption fueled by sums of money so large that violence is guaranteed and no institution-not even the local university-can be completely trusted.

One of the pleasures of reading Home Call is watching Jesse Surratt wake up and become the person he was meant to be. Alma, quoting her grandmother, reminds him that "Hiding ain't healing, mister," and her own resilience helps to restore his. Another distinct pleasure is experiencing the way Sloan includes elements so familiar in narratives of Appalachia and the South as to be stereotypical--the isolated community, the loner returning to his homeland, the call of the bourbon bottle, racism, and even a stubborn old mule--and weaves them in surprising and meaningful ways. Just as the reader thinks "I see where this is going," it doesn't. 

Home Call, while suspenseful and troubling, is also darkly humorous. Jesse and Alma, even when death stares them in the face and every second ticks toward doom, cannot be without cigarettes. Also the personalities of Hawkes County residents are sharply drawn, and their quirky ways thus hint at how these people Jesse thinks he knows so well will eventually astonish him. 

Readers will be haunted by some of what they encounter in Bob Sloan's Hawkes County. They will be heartened also. And most important, they will be deeply entertained.

Judith Hatchett is chair of arts and humanities at Midway College.

An abbreviated version of this review was published in the Herald-Leader, Lexington, Kentucky, Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004

Bob Sloan.  Home Call.  Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2004.  205 pages.  Paperback. $15.00