Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail
T.J. Forrester
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Buy *Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail* by T.J. Forresteronline

Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail
T.J. Forrester
Simon and Schuster
208 pages
October 2012
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Deeply provocative and profoundly disturbing, Forresterís small, intense novel explores human nature at its most exposed. The black heart suggested in the title is born out of both outside experience and reality, from ex-con Taz Chavisí self-examination of his life thus far and actual occurrences along the Appalachian Trail. Deciding to make the storied trek and put aside both drugs and an addictive relationship with a longtime girlfriend, Taz steps onto the Trail in search of truth through the physical and mental harmony necessary to complete the journey where drugs arenít available, though alcohol is plentiful.

During the arduous months on the trail, while moving from complete exhaustion to physical stamina, Taz makes two memorable acquaintances and gradually purges his memory of regrets, from a painful past with a pill-popping, suicidal father to a mother who abandons him as a boy to his own battle with addiction. Taz dissects his past, his relationship with his father, whom he loves, his own long slide into aimless addiction, petty crime and loss of self-respect, a book he read while incarcerated implanting the seed of the rigors of the Appalachian Trail.

He meets other hikers along the way: Richard, a Blackfoot Indian, a natural companion with a tendency toward bouts of drunkenness; and a growing flirtation with Simone Decker, a scientist plagued by worries about her own flawed DNA. Though the Trail itself is the dominant expression of natureís dichotomy, alternately beautiful and treacherous, it is Simone who first injects the specter of death that shadows Tazís journey, death as inevitable and as threat in this elementary communion with the physical. Tazís life experience renders him world-weary yet surprisingly naÔve when rationalizing what he most desires, perhaps the flaw running through every addict who cannot bear the glare of reality.

Other peripheral characters fill the landscape: an elderly couple going through a late-marriage conflict (this particular chapter an exquisite example of the balance in a settled marriage, both poignant and memorable); a gay couple that runs a trailside bed-and-breakfast, their somewhat unequal partnership threatened by the arrival of a third party; and Tazís tentative attempts to reconnect with his addict/lover, the attraction grown thin without drugs to blunt its paucity.

Balancing life and death, light and dark, Forrester creates an engaging novel with a deeply sympathetic protagonist, relatable characters and the corrosive seduction of a deeply damaged psyche nearing the end of a life-changing hike on which self-doubt is expunged and reality stripped of its disguise. The door to freedom is blocked by death, self-delusion no longer of use to a man eager to shed the past, rebirth excruciating and filled with grief. Taz is convinced: ďDeath is never the answer.Ē

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2012

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