In the annals of divine literary pronouncements, “Make marbles” ranks right up there with “If you build it, they will come,” for the initial “huh?” factor.
But that’s what the disembodied voice in his dream said, so that’s what orphan Loyal Ledford sets out to do. Only, instead of Iowa cornfields, the World War II veteran is surrounded by West Virginia mountains. And instead of a ball field, he’s trying to create a place where people can live and work together regardless of race. (When the dream voice tells him to name his youngest son Orb he does that, too – although that seems like taking blind obedience a little too far.)
Glenn Taylor’s debut novel, “The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart,” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Marrowbone Marble Company is a terrific follow-up, showcasing his high aims and impressive sentence-building chops.
Taylor announces his epic intentions from the start: He leads off with a sweaty, terrifying rendition of Guadalcanal, where Loyal becomes unmoored from his moral center.
Back at home and married to his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, heir of the Mann Glass factory where Loyal works, he drinks too much and gambles with his war buddy, Erminio Bacigalupo, a budding hit man. (Taylor has an ability to name things that’s almost Adam-like, but he might have considered changing Erm’s last name, since John Irving just used it for his main characters in “Last Night in Twisted River.” But I guess “wolf mouth” is just too evocative to resist.)
A progressive preacher named Don Staples introduces Loyal to civil rights. After realizing he’s not going to be able to integrate the glass factory – or its softball team – Loyal sets out to found a new company. (The scene where Loyal, standing alone like Charlie Brown on the pitcher’s mound, cuts off the last “n” on his Mann softball uniform is a rare instance of Taylor pounding his soapbox a little too hard. Most of the time, thankfully, he’s too busy storytelling to preach.)
He, Rachel, and the kids head for his family’s homestead on Bonecutter Ridge. “The Bonecutters lived on these five hundred West Virginia acres for 150 years. They were hard, proud people who prospered some times and went hungry others. They witnessed love and murder, fire and flood, until only two remained. It was left to them to hold on to the land. They did so with the sure grip that hill people possess.”
Marrowbone Cut isn’t, at first glance, paradise found. “Mostly, the hills of Wayne County were the color of mud, and it rolled down their inclines uncontained by streambeds. The mines had opened up new punctures, and folks had grown accustomed to what spilled forth.”
And the residents, apart from the two remaining Bonecutters – Dimple and Wimpy – aren’t terribly excited to have a civil rights commune in their midst. Really, Loyal should have just grabbed a lance and aimed for the nearest windmill. Instead, he fires colorful children’s playthings that catch the light and the imagination.
With him, Loyal brings Don and a former employee of the Mann Glass factory, an African-American GI named Mack Wells whose valor was only appreciated until V-E Day.
“The Marrowbone Marble Company” spans the civil rights era, as Loyal, Don, and their followers stand firm against crooked politicians and bullying deputies and set up a factory, church, and community center where everyone is created equal – or at least the men are.
“The Marrowbone Marble Company” is one of those books where the womenfolk don’t have a whole lot to do besides be supportive. Wife Rachel – whose money finances the entire experiment, but somehow doesn’t give her equal billing – conveniently decides that she really didn’t like being a nurse and would rather have babies. We don’t hear much about what this former rich girl thinks of her isolated mountain existence. (Lizzie Wells, Mack’s wife, is allowed a qualm of concern that her husband is risking their lives and taking her away from her family by hitching his star to a crazy white guy, but she’s soon presiding over barbecues beside Rachel and her mother-in-law.) Mary, Loyal and Rachel’s daughter, gets the role of active observer – recording the goings-on with her Bolex 19mm. And there’s plenty to film.
While Don, whose promise to never give boring sermons must have won his parishioners’ hearts, teaches nonviolence and reads from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons, the novel builds inexorably to a showdown that isn’t going to be resolved by a sit-in. “The Marrowbone Marble Company” is a novel about one man’s mountaintop idealism, but written in so earthy and sweat-streaked a way that it never runs out of oxygen.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.