In Jordan Farmer’s “The Poison Flood,” an ark isn’t going to save Hollis Bragg from an unholy biblical week. Confronted with environmental cataclysm and multiple murders, facing career suicide and romantic betrayal, the songwriting hermit’s only shield will be his growing self-confidence. Will that be enough to realize his transition to a more humane reality, or will Hollis be swept downstream into the Appalachian howl of a toxic maelstrom?
He’s always been a shambling figure in the dark leafage around Coopersville, West Virginia, where the shadows never lengthen because they’re always there. A self-described “unknown hunchback,” he mopes around his 10 scraggly acres, strumming his 1927 Gibson and pining for his former girlfriend, Angela Carver. She’s now a country mega-star, and he’s ghostwritten her songs for over 10 years; presciently, one is called “The Poison Flood.”
Hollis’ arrangement with Angela has been hidden from the public and the industry by an ironclad non-disclosure agreement. But that professional obligation is now jeopardized by his intention to create his own concept album, motivated by the coal-country protests that have broken out in his part of the state.
To cope with a lifetime of pain, Hollis’ solace is his unspecified daily medication. He has always relied on his “grotesqueness” to keep the locals at a distance and maintain his essential anonymity, but all that is about to change with the onrush of events.
Through flashbacks, we learn about Hollis’s impoverished upbringing. His father, a sermonizing brute known only as “The Reverend,” presided over a strange country church that merged evangelical Christianity and “mountain magic.”
Early in his life, Hollis’ vertebrae “went awry, snaked out on an alternate course.” As he grew older, his legs became “thick from the work of carrying the rest of me … I look caught in transformation into some beast.” Thus, for The Reverend and his flock, Hollis was an untouchable, “(m)arked like Cain.”
One day, Hollis discovered The Reverend hanging from a tree branch, so he burned down the church and ran off with Angela to start a band in Nashville. After the collapse of their relationship, Hollis retreated back to Coopersville, concealed himself on a hillside tract and dedicated his life to writing Angela’s songs.
In “The Poison Flood,” author Jordan Farmer has fashioned a near-Shakespearean snarl, a mad, seven-day action crucible set in the West Virginia wild. The plot juxtaposes the external conflicts of the region’s Edenic corruption — deadly chemical seepage, “blown” mountain tops, political violence — against Hollis’ interior battle to reconcile his disability with the potential for a loving relationship.
In Hollis’ description, Coopersville is “only the memory of a town.” The mines are shuttered — “the days of descending into the earth seeking frozen fires were gone” — and all that’s left is the nearby Watson Chemical plant. With an empire based on coal, the Watson family has exploited the population for decades and polluted the area’s land and water. (Hollis speculates about “(h)ow much the poisoned creek I was baptized in affected my body.”)
Enter a gun-twirling fanatic named Victor Lawton, an environmental terrorist so extreme that he’s recently been expelled from a radical “whistleblowing group” named the Watchmen. Emerging as the book’s satanic figure, Victor places Russell Watson under his nihilistic spell.
The rebellious son of Watson Chemical’s patriarch, Russell is leader of Coopersville’s only Country Goth band. He wears “false fangs” and drives a hearse. He hates his father and the Watson legacy of industrial crimes against the people.
Dropping into this backcountry bedlam is Rosita Martinez, a New York-based rock journalist/photographer, ostensibly in town to document Russell’s group. Her creative interest, however, is her website, an art project called “The Body Book,” which presents photos of human forms distorted by either mishap or birth. (“Bodies that are overlooked by society. Bodies that are misrepresented.”) “The Body Book” operates in a gray area between empowerment and crude, freakish fascination. Hollis is intrigued, as much as he’s repelled.
From this point, things get serpentine, or, rather, more so. A storage tank at Watson Chemical is mysteriously compromised, discharging its lethal contents into the region’s river system. Overnight, Coopersville becomes Chernobyl-like. Tributaries flow with skin-eating acid.
For Victor, mass disaster offers an opportunity to shame Russell into killing his daddy. It’s a comically macabre set piece at the Watson’s ancestral manse, “the closest this redneck hell will ever come to seeing a medieval castle,” observes Hollis. Rosita captures the grisly moment on film. With Victor and Russell in pursuit, she and Hollis flee into Coopersville’s contaminated universe of foul reckoning, before the pleasing denouement.
“The Poison Flood” is an ambitious saga, cockamamie and passionate. Through Hollis, Farmer produces a pocket Hillbilly manifesto: We don’t want equality, he says, “We just want a sucker punch worthy of payback. A chance to make those who laughed at us feel an inkling of our desperation.”
“The Poison Flood” is about Hollis Bragg’s personal re-Creation, signaled by allowing himself to be photographed for Rosita’s “The Body Book.” At that moment, he rises to a new awareness: “In my imperfect, yet temporary mistake of a body, I have a rare perspective. I understand now that all bodies are glorious mistakes.”
by Jordan Farmer
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
288 pages, $26
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