The Evening Hour 

Carter Sickels' Expertly Muted Debut

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People often complain that "nothing happens" in slow, internal, character pieces. It's also common to hear that plotty novels lack character development. Rare is the book that tries both. Rarer is one that succeeds. The Evening Hour, the debut novel by Carter Sickels, achieves that odd balance. It's a story with lots of drama—violence, death, lost people returning, catastrophic destruction—told quietly and calmly. In fact, it feels expertly muted—like a deep, dull pain.

The story takes place in a West Virginia coal town. It's the rapacious kind of mining that's going on now: blowing the tops off of mountains, leveling them, leaving stout and lifeless plateaus. The kind of mining that breeds small, inescapable towns.

The protagonist is an aide at the town retirement community. He's soft and gentle with the old folks, and genuinely likes them. He also has a symbiotic relationship with old people outside the home: He takes care of them... and buys their drugs to sell to his peers.

A few things about this protagonist are too obvious. For example, he feels trapped in a mining town, so his name is Cole Freeman. We're also reminded very often that he is afraid to talk because he has a lingering stutter.

But beyond that, his character is unshakably believable. Raised by his snake-handling Pentecostal grandfather and postcards from his absent mother, he knows scripture by heart but is unable to believe in anything. He's a quiet, reserved drug dealer who spends a lot of energy not thinking about anything. He ignores the mining company even as it threatens his home. He refuses to sell his land out of inaction, not protest or birthright. He doesn't even spend the money he makes dealing drugs.

Reduce this novel to major events and plot elements, and it resembles an exciting American epic like Sometimes a Great Notion. But where Kesey's novel is driven by a dangerous, madcap ambition, Sickels' is driven by an equally dangerous lack of ambition, and of certainty and faith. The writing follows—mostly flat tones that occasionally leap into gorgeous, lyrical prose. It's not a terribly new story, but the angle is fresh; it doesn't break your heart, but it makes it ache.

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