Three books, three different takes on the shape of literature these days. And, as should always be the case with things cultural and/or cultured, they provide a whole host of glimpses into the ways society is spinning webs for, and entertaining itself this millennium.
Shawn Purcell’s West Kill Creek caught my eye by its title and cover image. I lived in a community of the same name for a decade, and passed the sign for a creek of similar name, as captured here, on an almost weekly basis for many years there. Published by Troy Book Makers, and a first work by a longtime reference librarian, the novel captures the terrain I was looking to dive back into quite well, both in the Catskills as well as earlier scenes over in Columbia County and some later moments captured as West Kill Creek’s protagonists head off, post-apocalypse, towards the distant Adirondacks.
There’s great enthusiasm in Purcell’s writing here from the get-go. He’s good with our Upstate experiences hunkering down as bad weather hits, diving into whatever we’ve stored up for such times, gaining confidence as we survive without basic appliances. He also plays well off the innate loneliness of rural life and how it can lead us to hide from neighbors one moment and band with them like family the next.
The plot here is strong enough, too — a lethal virus wipes out much of society. Those left struggle, make do as gas and other supplies run out. Then things turn mean. Think of James Howard Kunstler’s gone-gas extravaganzas, without any small town ambience left. And Purcell’s adept at reaching back to engage a reader with his chosen territory’s rich but relatively unknown history, especially one like me who’s got reason to thirst for such things.
In the end, though, the novel, at over 400 pages, suffers from what ails so many books these days. It rambles a bit too much, detours too often, and could benefit from a decent editor’s drive to sharpen strengths and take out chaff. Which is a shame, given the richness of the territory covered, the historic and other gifts Purcell brings to his writing, and our need to be able to read more about life in these areas that get so easily forgotten by the rest of society these days.
The poet Gretchen Primack, whose animal-adoring and sweetly single-noted Kind we reviewed just a few months ago (and who works the front at Golden Notebook with regularity), has a new book out with Woodstock-based Mayapple Press , Doris’ Red Spaces, that immediately had me rushing for her earlier work, and my review, with new eyes, ears and a decent amount of reappraisal. These new works, collected, assembled, and presented in what’s becoming its publishers signature-quality way, are dense with emotions, experiences, allusions, and ways of being read. They whisper, at first reading, only to beg, demand, and deserve second readings start to finish. Many poems involve what we slowly realize is an imaginary friend, Doris, there to deal with very adult situations. All capture well the daily ways in which we face, overcome, and grow from small challenges…and epiphanies.