by Kirby Gann
Brooklyn, New York: Ig Publishing
286 pp.; $15.95
By Katherine Dalton
Entire contents copyright © 2012 by Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.
Some reviewers have described Kirby Gann's new novel as “hillbilly noir.” In doing so they have given his publisher a useful two-word summary to use with booksellers – and it is certainly true that Ghosting is a dark mystery set in the harsh economy of rural drug-running.
But “hillbilly noir” implies that Ghosting is genre fiction, when it is not. It is much better than that, and offers more than the typical genre novel's thinness of character and overemphasis on plot. If this is a murder mystery, it is one set on its head, with no clear answers as to whodunit or even what was done. Like any good novel, Ghosting is driven by character, and the main lesson for all of its principal actors is the discovery of everything they will never know. It is a beautifully imagined book.
The story opens with a flight through an old abandoned seminary that feels like a dream – a flight in which the game-legged central character, Cole, is left behind. Described as “an obedient and guileless spirit adrift from all familiars,” he spends the rest of the novel trying to catch up with his half-brother, Fleece, who has disappeared with the proceeds of a large marijuana buy. No one admits to knowing where he has gone, or if he is alive or dead. Cole makes it his mission to find out.
In doing so, he becomes a mule for the same syndicate his brother worked for, a pothead-innocent in a dangerous game; and he soon finds himself so implicated and bloody-handed that there can be no turning back, whether he discovers the fate of his brother or not.
Kirby Gann (real name: Kirkby Gann Tittle) grew up in the Beuchel neighborhood of Louisville, and there is plenty of Kentucky in this novel, from the landscape and the aphorisms to some of the state's better-known oddities. One character has the blue skin of methemoglobinemia, made famous by the Fugate family of the Red River Gorge area.
Now the managing editor of Sarabande Books in Louisville, Gann is the author of two earlier novels, The Barbarian Parade and Our Napoleon in Rags, and with Kristin Herbert co-edited the anthology A Fine Excess.
When he was a teenager, he spent a memorable night at the old St. Thomas Seminary off Brownsboro Road, being chased and shot at by the caretaker – a piece of his life he drew on for a short story that later became this novel.
Some of the characters quickly got too big for a short story, he says – particularly his aging and ailing drug supplier Mister Gruel, with all his “cheerful viciousness”; Cole's pill-addicted mother, Lyda Skaggs; and the preacher of Abundance Gospel, Brother Gil Ponder.
Gann says he knew from the start that the book would have some mystery to it, but he didn't want to write a typical murder story. He wanted to take another tack. “The idea was, how do you make it new? To me that's what you're always doing as a writer, on any project. We're so far into the history of literature that pretty much all stories are taken, all genres are taken, and now it seems you can play with those genres with the idea of how do you renew it.”
Hence this story, which centers around a disappearance that may or may not be a death, in which Cole stumbles over clues that may or may not clarify his brother's disappearance, and finds patterns that may or may not really be there.
One of the virtues of the book is the way Gann expresses the thoughts of his characters through what he calls a “heightened language.” While this language may not be plausibly realistic (would the inarticulate Cole really think this clearly?), it greatly enriches the book.
Gann is a lover of Dostoevsky, and points out that while we know Dostoevsky was a Christian, he gave his nihilistic, anti-Christian characters “just as much space. He didn't come out and say, 'These people are wrong,' but he tried to dramatize by their actions what can go wrong by going this route as opposed to another route.
“I think moral ambiguity within a character is more true to life, because no one is all good or all bad,” Gann says. He wanted to give all his characters “their due. I tried to understand where they were coming from, why they might make the decisions they've made and be okay with it.”
There is an unreadable torture scene in this book, lewdness and plenty of tough subject matter. But while many writers chronicle the down-and-out in a way that is as degrading for the reader as it is for the characters, Gann has written a story that is ultimately transcendent.
Nothing is clearly solved, nothing is finally resolved, and nothing is morally paid for in full by this varied group of characters who have their limitations, terrible weaknesses and cruelties. But there is love in this book as well. And if love fuels a lot of the misery of this story, it also transcends that misery and makes the misery potentially worthwhile. Cole longs for his brother, and we care about Cole because he does, even as that love sends him lower and lower into a pit where finally we lose sight of him.
Ghosting is a tragedy in the classical sense of the word: a story of men and women imprisoned by the fecklessness and blindness of their own flaws, who are caught up in disaster due to factors both beyond and within their control, but whose humanity makes them worth caring about. And by the end of the book, the reader has walked in the shoes of all these people long enough to understand them in a way that is necessarily the beginning of charity.