The Underworld
Kevin Canty
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The Underworld
Kevin Canty
W.W. Norton
256 pages
March 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Canty’s sad, low-key novel reads like a funeral elegy, beautifully capturing the aftermath of a mining tragedy. In 1972, in the small blue-collar town of Silverton, budding history student David returns for the summer to visit his parents. David admires his brother Ray's freewheeling nature. Ray enjoys a comfortable suburban life with his wife, Jordan, and their two young twins. Ray is one of the many men who works underground in the local silver mine, an often harrowing and filthy job but one that provides an opportunity for the workers to make some “really good money.” David isn’t really cut out to do Ray’s job, but he’s also unable to settle in to his new college life. He’s critical of a place where “a pickup, a pretty wife, draft beer, and peppermint schnapps, and church on Sundays” are the only things that are considered of real value.

Invited by Jordan and Ray to a local wedding, David dances with Ann Malloy, whom he remembers from his English class in high school. David and Ann share obvious mutual attraction, but Ann is married to Malloy, a magnetic, muscular mine worker who likes to run roughshod over Ann’s life. After marriage, Ann’s only apparent disappointment is her inability to get pregnant. While David holds onto Ann, Malloy looks on, clearly annoyed at his wife’s drunken, willful flirting. A longing comes over David, something that is bigger than a memory, “a nostalgia for a life that only he can seem to understand.”

When a fire breaks out underground at the mine, 91 men die of carbon monoxide poisoning. The disaster has a devastating effect on David and Anna and their families. Much of the drama of the story comes from the saga of Lyle Triplett, who remains trapped in the mine with his best mate, Terry Willett. As the men battle to survive, Canty fully captures their panic and struggle down in the dark, as well as the magnitude of the whole situation and the people who immediately start to hear about those who have died. Suddenly Lyle and Terry are tragic heroes, the townsfolk rallying to their side. David and Ann are left with unanswered questions and unspoken doubts about the survival of Malloy and Ray.

As word spreads through the community, rescue crews respond. People wait for any kind of word. When it is safe, a rescue operation is mounted to save Terry and Lyle, still stuck down at 4800 feet. With no definite count and no word, David and his mother search for Ray’s face in every blackened miner. In one instance, David sees Ann, remembering her from the wedding dance. Ann’s eyes skitter from face to face, recognizing David. As David feels the past reaching out to claim him in “a sticky embrace,” he realizes that Ray is probably gone. All David can think about is Jordan and the babies and how their loss is just too big to be borne.

In muscular prose, Canty painfully reveals David, Ann and Lyle’s hidden emotions in a story that soon becomes a tale of tragedy. Life, of course, must go on. Widows and orphaned children are eventually awarded death benefits, but the money does little to assuage the sadness--especially for Jordan, who cannot rise above her loss. As Anna and Jordan attempt to connect, if only for a time, David is crushed with sorrow. Ann’s apparent restlessness and David’s urge to remake his life transforms Canty’s story into a series of passionate encounters. David and Ann are brought into a harsh, cruel world all too soon.

Canty’s work stings of believability, of the workings of those who merely seek to survive and of those who must carry on in a hardscrabble life made even more heartbreaking. The author beautifully describes the well-worn faces and soft eyes of the mine workers, the decades of grime and smelter smoke that has scrubbed off the skin. The lead smelter and the way the valley holds the smoke in suffocates the areas surrounding Silverton, a town of poor people, of temporary people--“like a good wind might blow them all away.” Regardless of the tragedy on which the novel is built, the solid social themes are always compelling: the cost of early 1970’s blue-collar life and the people who try to desperately navigate their way through it with varying degrees of success.

While the novel's ultimate message about the toxic effects of the real-life Idaho Mine Disaster peter out a bit toward the end, the story maintains an actual sense of how real people like these characters, working-class or otherwise, can live a less angst-ridden and more genuine life. The root of such an existence need not be located exclusively in Silverton, a town that Canty defines by its place in time and in history.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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