Turns out that Long Man is just up my alley, ticking off a lot of boxes of things that I love in my novels: Literary fiction? Check. Small town setting? Check. Celebrating the quiet dignity of a people often overlooked by the rest of the world? Check. Southern? Cantankerous characters with old-fashioned names like Beulah? Exposes how the poor get waylaid by so-called progress for the convenience of the franchised? Check, check, and check.
There's no way to sum up this novel without making it sound dull, unfortunately, because the beauty of this novel lies in the richness of the characters and the location far more than in the actual plot. It's the story of a handful of people in the small town of Yuneetah in east Tennessee in 1936. Most of the town has already evacuated at the command of the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), who intends to flood this valley in an effort to bring electricity to the region. A little girl goes missing on the same day that a drifter wanders through, a drifter with a checkered history in this town. Did the girl wander off on her own, or was she taken? With very few neighbors left to head up a search party, the girl's fate becomes more tenuous with each passing hour, especially with the rising floodwaters of the river (known locally as Long Man). Meanwhile, a very old woman who lives on the mountain above this valley reminisces about history--her own and the town's--and how nature will have the last laugh over both.
Amy Greene is masterful at demonstrating that while the 1930s South may have been a simpler time, it doesn't mean that its inhabitants are any less complicated than people today. She also lives up to the writerly admonition to show, not just tell. Here are some excerpts that give a good sense of the prose and tone of the novel:
"The people of Yuneetah were losing more than their property. They relied on each other. If a house was taken by a flood they rebuilt it. If a man got sick they worked his crops. If he died they rang the death bell and the whole town came to see what needed doing. It hurt them to part not knowing when or if they'd meet again."
"For the most part Ellard believed he had done right by his hometown. Outsiders might have judged him for looking the other way when the moonshine runners came through and passed whiskey out by the carloads, but the next day he would see the bootleggers paying their druggist bills and settling up with Joe Dixon. Ellard had always put te well-being of his neighbors above any stranger's idea of morality or justice."
If you like Southern novels, or the works of Kent Haruf, or the literary lovechild that Eudora Welty and Jim Harrison might have produced, you would definitely like this book. If you savor a sense of place over a fast plot, finding pockets of local flavor amidst this largely homogenized nation of the US, this could be the book for you, too.
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book that I believe I at one time requested from the publisher, but it's possible I just picked it up from my bookstore's galley room. It will be published in February 2014 by Knopf.