Readers coming to Christopher Scotton's first novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, leery of the hype that's surrounded its publication, or wary of its admittedly pretentious title, or perhaps just plain weary of "holler" fiction that attaches some mysterious moral superiority to growing up dirt-poor in Appalachia, can set aside their apprehensions and settle in for one of the best novels they're likely to read in months – and the most startlingly assured debut since last year's "Fourth of July Creek" by Smith Henderson.
It's the story of 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly, who accompanies his mother to the little Kentucky coal town of Medgar after the tragic death of his younger brother in an accident whose shocking details Scotton expertly doles out in increments. Kevin's mother has become semi-catatonic in her grief over the accident (and Kevin's estranged, overwhelmed father hints that Kevin himself caused it), and they've packed up to the peace and quiet of Jukes Hollow, the home of Kevin's grandfather, Arthur "Pops" Peebles, the town's veterinarian and taciturn conscience. It's hoped by all that some time in Medgar will help Kevin and his mother to heal.
On the surface, Kevin doesn't seem to require much healing. Once he's in Medgar, he hasn't even unpacked before he's met a local boy named Buzzy Fink, who intrigues him immediately with the extensive toenail collection he keeps in an old Band-Aid box. Buzzy is exactly the kind of carefree friend Kevin needs, and soon the two are sharing adventures in woods and caves, and in Buzzy's impressive treehouse, the scene of idyllic moments Scotton imbues with all the sunlit whimsy of boyhood; "We stayed there, in the tree, on the porch, talking about everything all afternoon," Kevin, our narrator, recalls. "The way dust clings to spiderwebs like dew; spit and the specks that float in your eye when you look at the sun a certain way."
As much as Kevin enjoys his time with Buzzy, it's the time he spends with Pops that really begins to heal and change him. His grandfather takes him on as an assistant in his veterinary house-calls, which – in both their humor and their pathos – read like James Herriott hepped up on moonshine. Pops never talks down to the boy, and the singular grace Scotton gives their scenes together is reflected even in the sinuous prose-line of the descriptions: "Pops exhaled slowly and brought his right hand up to his eyes, rubbed the sleep from them, then ran his fingers down across his cheek to his chin in time with the last remnant of air expelling from his lungs."
But the outward peace of Medgar is deceptive. The coal mines in the mountains have petered out over the decades, and now Bubba Boyd, a bullying, bigoted lout ("He had the bearing and the belly of a retired football lineman" and "lips better fit for a fish" Kevin tells us, Scotton temporarily abandoning subtlety), is using his money and local clout by buying up the properties of his fellow townspeople in order to clear the way for surface-mining, in which the coal seams are reached by blowing off the tops of the mountains over them, creating an ugly wasteland. The process fills the air with "flyrock" (chunks of debris hurled sometimes long distances from the explosions) and deafening detonations, pollutes the wells and water tables, and fills ponds and streams with waste-product slurry. Some of Medgar's citizens – most certainly including Pops – are outraged and refuse to sell.
This sets the scene for tensions to overflow, and that tension is heightened, a trifle heavy-handedly, when one of Bubba Boyd's most outspoken critics is revealed to be gay. This odd little sub-plot tempts Scotton into his only hammy writing; in a scene where a group of angry townspeople meet to work up their courage to run the man and his lover out of town, Pops reminds each of them of the good things their would-be victims have done for them over the years and wraps up with "I think we've had enough talk about this for one day. Let's all just get on home to our families." It's enough to make you think Harper Lee is getting a sliver of the royalties.
But the bulk of "The Secret Wisdom of the Earth" rises so far above the hokum potential of its premise that it transforms itself into a hugely powerful meditation on the deep costs of change – Kevin's and Medgar's. Scotton brings his many plot-strands together in a concluding 40 pages that will absolutely rivet his readers with an virtuoso combination of uplift and heartbreak. Writing careers don't begin any more promising than this.