‘The New Valley’
Josh Weil, The New Valley
Publisher: Grove Press
2009, 344 pages, paperback, $14
Novellas get a bad rap in the publishing world. Smaller in scope than the more marketable novel yet too lengthy for publication in most literary journals, the novella is often seen as a creative experiment much appreciated by the literati but rarely read by everyone else. Despite the long list of well-respected novellas—Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and James’s The Turn of the Screw, to name but a few—, today’s publishers usually avoid novella monographs because they simply don’t make market sense. That said, intrepid novella readers, don’t lose faith in the form. You can still find these longer stories nestled within collections of short fiction or sold as thematically connected book projects. This winter, if you’re looking for a collection that explores the complicated relationship between place and the people who call that place home, Josh Weil’s recent novella triptych, The New Valley, might just be the right book for you.
Set in the rural hill country between West Virginia and Virginia, each of Weil’s three novellas combine a common topography with brooding male protagonists who dwell in or on the outskirts of sleepy New Valley hamlets. For Weil, character development and place take center stage as these men grapple with the absence of those whom they love. In “Ridge Weather,” Weil follows Osby Caudill, a middle-aged beef farmer, whose father’s recent suicide leaves the son clinging to his stoicism to keep his heart and dignity intact. The second story, “Stillman Wing,” introduces readers to a hardscrabble machinist, Charlie Stillman, whose forced retirement runs counter to the man’s belief that though he couldn’t save his parents, he will stave off his own death through tai chi and tasteless health food. Weil writes his final story, “Sarverville Remains,” in epistolary form from the perspective of Geoffrey Sarver, a developmentally disabled man, whose love for a married woman allows her to enact revenge on her husband.
Weil’s prose provides a spotless window through which we can bear witness to the richly detailed world of The New Valley. In “Ridge Weather,” Caudill struggles between his need for human connection and his need to protect himself from his perceived vulnerability, and that struggle unfolds within the bucolic world of his farm and the isolating confines of the nearby town. After several failed attempts to spend time with neighbors and old acquaintances, he relents and posts a ‘For Rent’ flyer in town, hoping a roommate will enliven his solitary bachelor pad and distract him from his grief. But loneliness and grief haunt him, even when he drives along the rural roads, the novella’s liminal space that connects town and farm. When Weil writes of Caudill’s drive back to his farm that night, we see the gauzy “lights of houses prick[ing] the dark like chips of stars fallen from the night sky to the night earth” (41). With such pitch perfect language, Weil shows us Caudill’s world through the character’s eyes, and we understand the timbre of this man’s loss.
In “Stillman Wing,” psychological and bodily loss are inextricably linked to the New Valley’s changing seasons. As each season passes, Charlie Stillman seems no closer to repairing the antique tractor he swiped from his employer, Pfersick, after he was forced into retirement. In the midst of Stillman’s preoccupation with the tractor, the man often looks up from his work, measuring his failure against the tree’s changing leaves and a neighbor toddler who becomes a young boy over the course of the story. Stillman soldiers on, refusing to acknowledge his powerlessness to save anyone, including himself. Weil deftly connects Stillman’s failure to repair the old machine with the loss of his parents, daughter, and health, allowing those losses to counterpoint his desire to resurrect this machine. Machines can be managed. Affairs of the heart cannot: “Sometimes it seemed the pleasure his daughter brought him was soft fruit grown around a pain so old it had lithified into a stone waiting to crack his teeth” (111).
For most of the novella, readers see the world almost exclusively through Stillman’s eyes, but in his moments of contact with people, Weil allows the character’s self-consciousness to reveal how others might see his world. One such moment occurs when Pfersick’s son pays him a visit. When the younger man departs, Stillman notices suddenly how much he’s neglected his property. He scans his yard and notices how “scattered pieces of Ball jars shone,” how the “white piano keys” were “like a dozen finger bones” (151). For Stillman, “…watching them he knew that bigger things must have lodged against the stilts beneath the house—rust-eaten tubs, the broken handles of old tools: artifacts of a long-forgotten world unearthed and hurled against the underpinnings of his home” (151). By devoting such attention to the place Stillman calls home, Weil delicately weaves the physical dilapidation of the man-made yard with the character’s very real mental and bodily disintegration.
Weil’s final novella in the collection, “Sarverville Remains,” opens with Geoff Sarver’s first letter to the man in prison who assaulted Geoff because of his relationship with a married woman. I approached this story with some reservations. Having read several narratives written in the voice of someone with a developmental disability, too often I’ve finished those stories disappointed with the writer’s limited understanding of his character. Fortunately, “Sarverville Remains” is a gratifying exception as Weil masterfully tends to his character’s emotions in a way that benefits from pared down vocabulary. In the hands of a lesser writer, Geoff’s disability could have hijacked this first person point of view story; Weil, however, seamlessly infuses the character with the psychological depth most memorable characters possess.
That psychological depth is rooted in Geoff’s desire to be respected and loved, two desires particularly poignant for a man who grew up in foster care. Early in the story, readers learn that Geoff moved in with a foster sister and her family after he was badly beaten in a domestic dispute. At one point he writes about his decision to feed some raccoons that have been attempting to scavenge the trash bins behind the house. Neither Geoff nor the raccoons are wanted at the house, and Weil delicately threads the plight of these night scavengers with Geoff’s. Though he knows his brother-in-law despises the animals, Geoff begins to leave leftovers outside for them, appreciating the connection he can share with them. Unable to resist the offer of free food, soon many animals creep to the yard at night for store bought scraps until the brother-in-law notices and methodically guns them down while Geoff watches helplessly. Geoff writes to the incarcerated man not only about his shame for being human and his capacity, therefore, for crutelty, but also about his surprise when some of the animals decide to return to scavenge despite the likelihood of being killed. This is the moment when Geoff’s understanding of human failing opens the door for the story’s powerful close. For Geoff,
…when them yard critters go all the way to that way way back I expect they is turned away there, too… beat back to the edge till they got to give the yards a try again [or else] they gonna give up and disappear… [go] all the way to the back woods…so far they can’t even see the yards no more, or smell the trash, too far for anything what might get in their brains and say to them come back come back you yard critters, come back and try again (264).
I won’t reveal the story’s central mystery, but the final pages of “Sarverville Remains” and The New Valley serve as a rallying call to flee the cities, in large part because of this simple man’s powerful recognition that life without “normal” humans might not be such a bad life after all.
In an interview earlier this year, Josh Weil spoke about his reasons for using the novella form for The New Valley: “The form definitely chose me… I’m a strong believer in the story taking as long as it needs to take to be told well, [a]nd in not trying to squeeze it into a smaller space just because some magazine out there has decided that anything over 5,000 words is too long. Who wants to think of fiction that way?” By the same token, Weil could have interweaved the characters more directly to create a novel. Instead, he allowed each novella to take its shape from a richly imagined physical place and linked each lead character through his nuanced notion of home, reminding readers why the publishing market can never dictate the outcome for strong storytelling.
Gwynne Middleton, Reviews Editor