Book review | Clayton Lindemuth’s NOTHING SAVE THE BONES INSIDE HER

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

–from Batter my heart, three-person’d God – John Donne (1572-1631)

Clayton Lindemuth’s NOTHING SAVE THE BONES INSIDE HER (2013) is a story about a believer and her God. But this is no feel-good-hands-in-the-air-and-hug-your-neighbor faith. Emeline Margulies Hardgrave believes in a God who has much power, but who demands much in return. Faith can conquer, Lindemuth seems to claim, but first, the believer must be conquered by faith.

Emeline’s journey shows her overcoming domination and power through submission to her God’s will. Her God is a harsh teacher who schools her in submitting to His will in the face of an evil that has free rein in the Appalachian mountains of western Pennsylvania. Can Emeline allow herself to become an instrument of righteousness? If she can, her vision of peace will become the future. If she can’t, a centuries-old evil made manifest will claim another life.

Emeline’s tormentors–both her stalker and her husband–want one thing: to hold in their fists dominion over the life and death of every living thing in Devil’s Elbow. The novel’s theme of man’s misuse of power is made clear in the breeding and fighting of pit bulls, which Lindemuth renders with particular detail and nerve-withering force.

But even though Lindemuth can make words climb into your mind and lodge like memory, the purpose is never mere shock porn. In this novel, puppies are tortured into being fighting dogs because powerless men need to pretend that they are strong. Justice comes with four legs and clamped jaws, though. Every man who trains a pit bull in this book has created a hound of hell, and the hounds exercise a moral force in the book’s punishing universe.

Lindemuth’s world is no place for half-measures, not for dogs nor characters nor author. His subject and style are in the tradition of John Donne, mixed with a northern Appalachian Gothic tone reminiscent of William Faulkner, and a crystalline, straight line of descent from Flannery O’Connor. The stalker’s car in NOTHING SAVE THE BONES INSIDE HER could appear in O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find;” the trailer that Deet fashions for Emeline is like the Bundren family’s wagon in Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING.

Lindemuth’s last novel, COLD QUIET COUNTRY, is a Wyoming riff on Arthurian legend, a fact tipped to us by the characters’ names: Guinevere and Gale G’Wain. If you’re thinking that their literary pedigrees alone make Lindemuth’s books worth reading, you’d be right. These modern-day revenge tragedies and morality plays are spiritual–deep explorations of what we know is right and wrong, fair and unfair, moral and immoral, good and evil–the lights that illuminate, sometimes dimly, our journey through the world.

Lindemuth is a writer’s writer, too, in his use of setting, voice, and point of view. Anyone who practices fiction writing will benefit from a study of how he makes different voices come off the page through word choice, punctuation, and details.

Such a charged, emotional reading experience is an unusual, unsettling, yet rewarding experience, and I look forward to spending time with Clayton Lindemuth’s next release, MY BROTHER’S DESTROYER (2013).

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5 responses to “Book review | Clayton Lindemuth’s NOTHING SAVE THE BONES INSIDE HER

  1. Pingback: Stunning Review of Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her « Clayton Lindemuth

  2. Audra, first, again, thank you.

    I’d like to respond to the question you posed earlier: “Where do you start writing your novels–Theme, characters, storyline, something else…?”

    That’s a great question, and the answer is different for each of my books. I’ve completed seven novels (not counting two as a college kid) and each has had a different start. I’ll narrow it down to what seems to work for me.

    The story that became Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her started out as “Angus Hardgrave.” I had a few ideas I wanted to put together into a story. I had, what I call, “story elements.” For example, I’ve always loathed people who fight dogs. I’ve always had a pit bull close at my side and I’ve always found them the most intelligent and loving animals. I wanted to make a statement about the warped mentality of people who fight them.

    I also had a story element in mind based on the spine in the walnut tree. That came from working “rustic” walnut in my wood shop. “Rustic” just means that the wood is close to junk. It’s super knotty and warped, half rotten most of the time. I love rustic walnut because the wood has character. I ran a section through the planer and it was much like I describe in the book. Each pass seemed to bring out a spine. I thought that was pretty neat and could work in fiction.

    The walnut whiskey story element comes from my youth. I built a still in college, made a couple gallons of apple brandy, some vodka, and some nasty, nasty peach brandy. After figuring out why the spine was in the walnut tree, it didn’t take much imagination to come up with walnut whiskey being a conveyance of evil… So, with these and other story elements were the starting points. The story came out of the elements that I wanted to work with.

    Emeline’s faith struggle came late. In early versions, she was either a complete dolt, powerless, a victim, or she was an evil genius working a master plan. Neither portrayals was convincing. Then about eight months ago I started thinking of the story as being like a tree without a center–all the limbs in place, but no trunk, no center holding it all together. When I came upon Emeline’s central struggle being about following her faith, it was kind of remarkable. The entire story was already in place around that theme, as if I had anticipated that theme at the first draft, but didn’t become cognizant of it until much later. Suddenly, all of her actions made sense. It was the easiest rewrite in history–just a matter of making explicit things that were already present, but subdued.

    As for Cold Quiet Country, believe it or not, that novel started out as a sequel to Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her. I didn’t know how it would work–I didn’t have a character, a plot, an internal or external struggle. I just had a guy crossing a frozen lake, and I had to figure out why he was bleeding. Because I was fresh from Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her, the lake in my mind was Oniasant, and the house was the Hardgrave residence, years later. The house Gale holes up in is identical inside, in terms of layout. Of course, after I got a couple chapters in I decided it was useless to make the events take place at the Hardgrave estate…. I didn’t think the tie-ins would be relevant to the central struggles that were emerging, so I changed the setting to Wyoming.

    The prequel to Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her, which is the story of Jonah McClellan, (and which I hope to release in January) started differently again. I already was committed to quite a few events. I knew how Jonah had to end. I knew some of the characters that had to be present. So it was a matter of finding interesting story elements, and then thinking through the struggle of each character.

    I should also point out that in my approach, I don’t figure it all out before I write. Instead, I write until I have a complete novel. Then I add a layer of complexity, and then another, and another. My earliest draft of Cold Quiet Country didn’t have Gale related to Bittersmith, Gwen, or anyone. Each of my stories goes through about a dozen fully functional drafts before the final story emerges.

    And last of all, the novel I’m working on now, still only in its second draft, started differently again. It’s a murder mystery set in an exotic location with an unusual protagonist. From knowing the setting and the extremes of my protagonist, I thought through the story in terms of his internal and external struggles, and then sought conflicts to present that would show a story arc both internally and externally at the same time… with the internal struggle undermining the protagonist’s achievement of the all-important external struggle. All that, wound into a murder mystery that takes place in single day, like Cold Quiet Country. I’m loving how it’s shaping up, but I would never have been able to write like that before–it’s a lot to keep track of.

    I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you this way, using your blog as a forum to discuss writing, my books, the craft…

    I look forward to the next question, whether it’s a followup to something I’ve stated here, or another. I hope your readers feel free to chime in with their own questions! Let’s have some fun with this!


  3. Pingback: Book Review: Nothing Save The Bones Inside Her by @claylindemuth | Scripturience

  4. Hi, Clayton! Thank you for the insight into your thinking and writing processes. You wrote, “I should also point out that in my approach, I don’t figure it all out before I write. Instead, I write until I have a complete novel. Then I add a layer of complexity, and then another, and another…Each of my stories goes through about a dozen fully functional drafts before the final story emerges.”

    Your subject matter in both Cold Quiet Country and Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her is challenging–sometimes brutal. In both novels, you explore men’s sexual and physical violence against the vulnerable, including women, children, and animals.

    Given that you write about visceral impulses and effects, your treatment of subjects sticks with me as a reader. Who do you think of as your audience while you’re writing?


  5. That’s a great question. Here are some thoughts.

    First, from thirty thousand feet, my potential audience is massive. I know this because I know that there are a tremendous number of people who have an appetite for art/entertainment that explores evil and presents its findings starkly. On the art side of the spectrum, there are books by Cormac McCarthy and Donald Ray Pollock. Closer to the middle, straddling art and entertainment, are films by Quentin Tarantino and dozens of others. On the entertainment side, video games with people destroying people. Our society evidences a great appetite for evil. Our interest in it is profound.

    From a hundred feet, a much closer view to the art side of the spectrum, I would align myself outside the mainstream.

    The mainstream view seems to be like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, in which a new kind of evil is presented, and the old guard doesn’t know what to do with it, and kind of abnegates on doing anything. Hence the title… this is no place for old men, or people who believe in old values. The world has moved on. Donald Ray Pollock seems to strike a similar view in The Devil All the Time. Every page drips with references to God, the giver of morals, but only to show God’s impotence. Pollock presents a shattering view of humanity, one that throws up its hands, powerless to even comment. Pollock seems to take a photographer’s view of literature, that his role is not to comment, just to record an image with clarity that allows it to speak for itself. And that clarity is such that the only statement is abject hopelessness. We have to agree the world is fallen. But fallen from what? There is no good-bad duality in Pollock’s world, just bad. On closer inspection, it isn’t a fallen world at all. Just and evil one. It didn’t come from anything better and has no hope of returning.

    In my “note from the author” in my last two books, I state, I don’t believe in hopeless writing. I believe in a Creator, in absolute right, and that evil is evil and ought to be called out. I believe fighting evil is always worthwhile—even the impossible fight.

    I sense that I’m a minority in a lot of ways, here. I have Christian faith and a Christian world view, and I’m willing to present evil with the same clarity as the people whose work seems to reject not just hope, but the lawgiver I call God. Stated another way, I don’t know any authors who agree with me about the nature and personhood of God who don’t shrink from the worldly evidence—the brutality, evil, and profane—that shows he is not real. I don’t know a single author who will stake out ground square in the middle of the muck, and from there proclaim hope, that there is valor in fighting evil. C’mon, let’s roll.

    It’s tough to do so. God calls us to be holy, and I don’t feel holy when I paint the scenes I paint.

    I do it because I remain convicted that if I did not, I would be turning my back on the unique capacity that I have to affect change. I don’t know what effect I personally can have on the world, but whatever talent I have, I want to be aimed at creating awareness of pain and evil. People who are very close to me suffered greatly at the hands of people like my bad guys: Angus Hardgrave and Josephus Bittersmith. That’s the why of my writing. Evil is real. So is good. If we don’t join the fight for good, our inaction decides us on the other side.

    The how simply comes from integrity. Stephen King spoke about being honest with writing. Being unflinching. I think that anything less is doomed. Thus when one of my bad guys does something bad, I can’t just hint that it happened. I have to show it, and in truth, for my goal of changing the world, it’s far better to paint a stark, vivid picture. In real life when a family member does evil to another, no one wants to talk about it. Somehow people seem to think it reflects on them to have a grandparent be a pedophile, so they avoid the subject, or even fail to notify authorities, or even notify the parent of the child at risk. People get shy in the face of evil and other people suffer as a consequence.

    In art, however, the goal is to render an image with such clarity that the artist’s message embedded within is heard with moral force. That’s my definition. It’s two parts, the image portrayed and the message within. A stark image with no moral message is a waste of time. It’s porn. Art for hedonists, not philosophers.

    In my art—if I may be so bold as to call it that—I want the rape of a child to be hideous. I want the torture of an animal to be painful to the reader. But it has to go much deeper—it has to communicate that the pain of suffering is real because there is evil, but good predates evil, and because of that, we cannot throw up our hands in despair. We can’t just paint an ugly world and call it art. I can look out the window and see an ugly world. The beauty, the sublime, is in knowing that there is good within all that ugliness. We can align ourselves with that good, fight on its behalf, and someday win.

    Now, bringing all this back to audience…

    I don’t think about audience when I write. I think about being authentic, about creating a story that is so compelling that it can earn an audience. I’m hopeful on that front because as I’ve said above, I don’t sense a lot of writers are willing to get as ugly as I am willing to get, while being remaining committed to telling a clear, moral tale. I think the potential audience is great because it seems the preponderance of authors who wallow in brutality do so from a perspective of hopelessness.

    I think more authors have given up hope than readers. I hope. 

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