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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- Book Review: Nothing Save The Bones Inside Her by @claylindemuth (authorleefrench.wordpress.com)