Mark Barr’s ambitious debut novel “Watershed” chronicles the tumultuous times in a small Tennessee town during the building of a federal dam in rural 1937. His story unfolds through two main characters: Nathan, an engineer from Memphis, and Claire, a young housewife and a native of the area.
Arriving in the fictional town of Dawsonville to work on a giant dam construction project, Nathan is hiding a secret. He rents a room at a boardinghouse run by Claire’s Aunt Irma and begins his work at one of the dam offices onsite, where competitiveness, stress and unrelenting problems with supplies and materials complicate his career.
Claire has left her husband, Travis, a dam worker who was cheating on her. With her children left in the care of her mother, Claire moves in with her aunt and works at the boardinghouse, which is filled with the white-collar men who manage the finances and design of the dam.
As Claire begins her journey into a more autonomous life, she explores for the first time having a career as well as a sexual relationship with Hull, one of the boarders, a self-centered, attractive Chicagoan. She becomes the face neighbors can trust as she goes to work for the salesman, who is in town to sign up locals for the new electrical cooperative.
Nathan meanwhile has to contend with the cutthroat workplace surrounding the dam project, where smart engineers struggle to keep their jobs after the 90-day “trial” period. The scent of failure and disgrace is palpable, and Barr’s detailed descriptions imbue the drama with vivid images: “The front walk of the building was caked with mud from the site that had been tracked by the engineers’ and foremen’s boots.”
An aloof, harried manager and acerbic henchman/enforcer only add to the “Glengarry Glen Ross” vibe, illustrated with brutal simplicity when Nathan’s arrival leads to another man’s abrupt termination.
Barr has said he was surprised to learn about the cultural disparity that existed between the rural residents and the electrified, city-dwelling newcomers of the time, and “Watershed” does an excellent job portraying this tension. For many of the characters, employment — not the electricity they are creating — is what’s important in the context of the dire economic climate of the 1930s.
The author artfully illustrates flashes of the bustling city life encroaching into the small town. When Claire’s husband Travis gets his first paycheck, he’s quick to buy new overalls, blinking at the $1.20 cost. As he leaves the shop and walks down the street, he notices a businessman’s suit on a mannequin, and in heartbreaking prose Barr has him examining much more than just how a necktie is tied.
“The knot on the dummy’s tie was smaller than the ham-fisted one that Travis’ pap had taught him. He shuffled a step to the side, trying to get at how the knot was done … Two men came out of the bank, talking, and walked in his direction. Travis peered at the knots on their ties, trying to gauge if they were larger than the mannequin’s…’Say,’ Travis began, and cleared his throat.”
Faced with the possibility of electricity, many of the field laborers and farmers see it as simply another thing to spend their hard-earned dollars on, with the government’s involvement only increasing their wariness. This old-fashioned skepticism earned from years of hard living makes it even more difficult for outsiders coming into the area, and several clashes between locals and dam/electricity employees end in violence.
A recurring character in the form of a “red headed boy” is used by Barr to convey some of these residents’ doubts and fears when faced with a changing environment. As an observer, the child symbolizes the community at large, and his ability to embrace electricity illustrates the adaptability of youth.
What Claire and Nathan have in common is the ability to see and function in both worlds. As Claire strives for financial independence, she’s ready to put her old life behind her. Despite his city ways, Nathan befriends a dog-fighting country roughneck. Both have the skills to navigate these new worlds, although the chance of returning — in shame or triumph — to their former lives is always there.
Barr’s depiction of Claire is somewhat problematic. Her newfound independence leading her to make rash decisions, like having an affair with Hull, may be believable, but her decision to leave her children to work at the boarding house is harder to reconcile, given the era.
Businesslike and ambitious, Nathan is also arrogant, despite the fall from grace that brings him to the dam build. He had been accustomed to being the quickest engineer, a hotshot at finding solutions to problems. His future was well planned out before a tragic fire at a building that his fledgling business designed took the lives of 16 people and sent him into hiding.
When Claire discovers Nathan knows about her relationship with Hull, she reacts with anger. Nathan responds by telling Claire his secret, which binds them together. But involving others in his new identity only drags out the consequences.
The dam is a powerful backdrop to this character-driven story. As millions of gallons of water are commandeered to power a large chunk of the state’s new electrical system, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with Nathan’s hidden background and corked emotions. A well-crafted story that engages history, economics and engineering, this snapshot of Tennessee in the 1930s is to be savored.
by Mark Barr
Hub City Press
303 pages, $26
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