Ann Pancake’s newest book, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, is a collection of novellas and short stories set in the small towns and rural places of the American outskirts. In Pancake’s stories run-down barns, warped farmhouses, and neglected campgrounds come to vivid life. Take, for example, this passage describing a motorcycle ride from the book’s first story, In Such Light:
When they didn’t ride along the river, Nathan favored an east side outskirt of abandoned or almost abandoned warehouses and factories, the streets there usually empty, and always of cops. The structures formed a three-story sheet metal ravine, their echo spectacular, the motorcycle a contained and rainless thunderstorm ricocheting between walls. The deserted hulks seeped not just eeriness, but somehow anger, even surprise, but Janie and Nathan were shielded from that by the speed of the bike. Them rocketing past enigmatic geometries, cylinders and chutes, cupolas and cones, past towering red letters threatening head injury and limb loss, past windows, if not shattered, so spider-infested Janie could make out webs at fifty miles per hour. These were places that used to make things, not chemicals, electricity, gasoline, but things you could actually touch, and now the vegetation rising, the weeks shrouding, pressing fecund, wanton, “plants” and “plants” Janie’d think in her alcohol haze, noticing for the first time how the word had been stolen, but ultimately the first plants had won.
Many of these stories are set in Pancake’s native West Virginia. Readers who know Southern Appalachia will recognize the scenery – simultaneously lush, poor, grand, and confined – and the politics. Pancake’s first novel, Strange as This Weather Has Been, dealt with the crisis of mountaintop removal mining. In Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley the story Arsonists revisits this subject most explicitly. In it we see that those trapped by the economics of the coal industry stick together as best they can.
Although the book vibrates with Southern Appalachian air, these stories speak beyond the region. Demographic change is turning small town and rural America into a memory. Or a fiction. Today little of the real world of rural America shows up in mainstream media. Reality television shows mythologize the rugged and macho “dirty” jobs of those living outside American cities. And we have a paucity of writers treating rural American communities seriously. Pancake shows us the beauty, tragedy, and poetry in these endangered lives.
Natalie Axton is the editorial director of Critical Read, a new platform for original writing on the fine and performing arts.