A WASTE OF SHAME, and Other Sad tales of the Appalachian Foothills
by Geoffrey Smagacz
•Reviewed by Jim O'Neill
Appalachia is an American Transylvania; its myth looms larger than its reality. The region evokes images of craggy hills, dark woods, feuding families, and woodshed moonshine. Appalachia extends along the mid-Eastern United States from southern New York and Lake Erie to Mississippi and Alabama. Its geographic expanse and its ecological and cultural diversity hardly qualify it as a stagnant backwater or a desperate outpost, although quite a bit of literature, film - and even news reporting would lead us to think so.
Mapletown, a fictional Appalachian community [somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line], is the setting of Geoffrey Smagacz's short novel, A WASTE OF SHAME. Smagacz's tale about the dissolution of a friendship deals with real things that occur in real time in a real place. The author does not mythologize, caricature or patronize the book's Appalachian setting or the region's population. He presents people whose flesh aches and whose blood runs. Mapletown could be any locale passed by time and forgotten by the world. It is a town studded with "houses one on top of the other like a misplaced New England village only dilapidated," and roundly encroached upon by woods whose paths are "hewn out by village drunks," but much like Mapletown Lake, the "dark forlorn puddle" on which the small town sits, something deep and dark swims under the surface. That something will rise up and create a tempest that will rattle lives in the small, otherwise sleepy, enclave.
Smagacz's first person point of view is droll and deft. He lets the reader stay a few steps ahead of Kevin, a narrator physically in low gear ("There's nothing in his shoulders") but morally in overdrive. Kevin disapproves of foul language, halter-tops, and creased pants. He's a stuffed shirt, but a colorful one: "I aspired to class (whatever class was.)" He's likable in the way a somewhat simple but amusing sidekick or companion can be. He tries to come to grips with the interactions that play out between himself, his best friend Jim, Jim's fiancée Debra, and Jim's lover Pam. While Kevin manages to know every aspect of everyone else's life, he has little insight into his own. Self-awareness beckons, and ultimately falls in his lap, but it comes at a tall price.
Kevin, Jim, and Pam work in a restaurant. Beer battered fish is the nightly special. Kevin is as adept at brining, seasoning and coating his own underbelly as he is at battering and frying those fish fillets. He is a master of putting a golden shell on top of the so-so meat underneath. But fish is not the only thing in Maplewood dipped in beer; everything seems to be beer soaked. Even the kisses are "beery." It is a booze-fueled world, but never a stale one. Yet all the brew in all the taverns of Maplewood won't dull the sting of the truth that ultimately breaks through the alcohol-buzzed surface.
Smagacz's story breathes fire, but it is a fire that smolders more than it blazes. Unease creeps into every interlude, even the funny ones, and there are many of those. The author has a way of catching the reader off guard just when things start to seem comfortable and cozy. As in any good noir or anti-hero piece, the slack-paced lead character reaches a watershed - but he gets there by taking all the wrong turns.
The small circle of friends come together, tangle, separate and reunite as each moves closer to a wrenching showdown. Kevin resents Jim, whose stronger and more confident - but also more reckless and heartless. May also have a thing for Jim's fiancée, Debra - especially since Jim openly carries on an affair with Pam, a restaurant waitress. The plot may sound like the soap operas Kevin's mother likes to watch—yes, poor Kevin even lives at home with Mom—but it is not; its taut, cunningly minimalist structure builds steadily to a climax that will stay with the reader long after the book's final startling moments.
In Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," one character says of another, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." A clear mind is elusive. Discovery almost never comes full and fast. It is a poky process. When it comes it hits like a bullet - one nobody saw coming, not Kevin, nor us. A WASTE OF SHAME starts with a cocked gun whose trigger will at some point be pulled. After the shot, all is revealed.
Smagacz's characters often find themselves lost in thick woods. They do not have an easy time finding their way out. Neither does the reader. The novel is challenging and disturbing (as is the short story collection "Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills" included in this edition), but it is a gripping read, one that both chills like the wind across the town's dark lake and warms like the fire from one of its even darker taverns. (Wiseblood Books 181 pages)
What are the thoughts that run through our heads when we eat at a
small-town restaurant? Do we look past the crappy bowl of soup in front
of us to the hobbled steps that brought it to our table? What is our
honest opinion of the kitchen staff we may catch a glimpse of? Are
they too lazy to go out and get real jobs, or might there be more
complicated factors at work?
is hard, period, but it is especially difficult in the poverty-stricken
foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In Geoffrey Smagacz’s, A Waste of Shame (from the forthcoming, A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills [Wiseblood Books]),
we follow a small group of young adults as they sometimes confront, but
more often than not attempt to avoid, the facts of life and the
repercussions of their choices. As we watch this new generation make
decisions that lock themselves and those around them into the cycle of
poverty and pain, we may be left wondering if it is even possible for
these young people to break out of it at all. Woven into this fabric we
find an excellent study of character, and a writer’s engagement with the
contemporary milieu in which he writes.
A Waste of Shame, gives us a wonderful illustration of just
how powerful Minimalism can be when invoking character, especially in
its volcanic first chapter. By chapter’s end, we have been presented
with very few concrete details about our protagonist, Kevin, but we feel
pretty confident that we know who he is and what his relationships are
with the people around him. It is a wonderful evocation of the timeless
nature of frustrated, unbridled youth, and it is immediately apparent
why this chapter has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
The placement of the entirety of Shakespeare’s, Sonnet 129, in the prologue is a curious move, one which begs our careful consideration. Sonnet 129,
is basically an extended rant on the dangers of unbridled lust, and our
early inclination may be to assume that it points towards interpreting
this story as a condemnation of the young men who abandon their wives
and children for the pursuit of base pleasures. This interpretation ties
in nicely with the way that Kevin is shocked to learn that Jim is
cheating on his pregnant girlfriend, and how he is outraged when he
learns that Jim has continued the affair after his marriage, but at
times Kevin also seems to be complicit, almost jealous of Jim’s affair.
The more we learn about Kevin, the more we wonder if he isn’t just
angry that he’s not the one getting laid.
As our understanding of Kevin continues to expand, we begin to
suspect that maybe he’s a better explanation for the presence of the
sonnet (this is a brilliant character study, after all). Once again, we
find this cannot be a simple application of condemnation. Not only is
there an anger and frustration to Kevin, but there’s also the effects of
a crippling bout of depression; a fact that he can’t see and, given the
first-person narration, it takes us a bit longer to realize is there.
So what are we to make of the sonnet in the prologue? Can we find a
better fit for it? While it may contain a good deal of insight into
human nature, you might start to wonder how much attention the average
contemporary reader will be willing to give it. Many readers may just
skip over it. It sounds too harsh to our contemporary ears: too
Elizabethan, too poetic, too moralizing. Don’t we prefer
our characters more like Kevin?
The answer lies in the brilliance of this book; what it has to add to
the conversation. We begin by acknowledging the fact that the old
rules regarding character have changed. There was a time, not long ago,
when writers simply needed to leave the stagnant harbors of the
bourgeois and nobility for the safer shores of the peasantry and other
fringe groups of society; but, this is the age of soap operas and
syndicated tabloid talk shows. Consider for a moment how
readers might react to characters such as those we find in, A Waste of Shame,
after they’ve had such a prodigious helping of Jerry Springer.
Will readers still be able to find in these characters the epitome of
the human condition, or will they just see a bunch of hillbillies who
need to stop drinking, smoking, and cheating on their wives? Will they
still sympathize with our narrator, Kevin, or will they just want him to
get off his ass and go back to college and get a real job?
These are questions that Smagacz openly wrestles with, and there are
moments where the thoughts of Kevin seem to be overtaken by those of the
author: “I must have heaved several sighs, but who could hear over
mom’s soap opera? Sappy strings tried to direct her to feel trepidation
over some immanent doom.” Later at a party, we find that, “the song Don
played was kind of rock and roll and kind of twangy at the same time, a
tune with a sappy story. “ Upon hearing this song, one listener seems to
voice the consensus of those around him (and potentially us) when he
asks, “What is this shit?”
There is more to this than just the standard, post-modern questioning
of plot. This goes much deeper, to the
many debates recently regarding the authenticity of character in
fiction; of what exactly is believable and what is worthy of our
sympathy. Here is a well written text that is both believable and full
of characters that more than deserve our sympathy, and it dares to ask
us what we make of it. Do we really know ourselves well enough to
answer, and are we honest enough to admit our judgment? Perhaps the
crisis is not in literature, it is in us.
There is much more to be found in this and the other short stories
that are included in this volume. Don’t let the cover fool you;
“literary fiction that scrupulously avoids being literary,” does not
mean that it is short on themes, conflicts, and many of the other
literary elements that make fiction worth reading. There is plenty here
to satisfy readers with both contemporary and more traditional literary
interpretations (know of any other young men in Shakespeare who were
unable to summon themselves to action?).
The late James Laughlin’s publishing house, New Directions, is the
standard at the moment for contemporary fiction. When you see ND on the
spine, you know that you’re getting a solid work that is actively
engaged with contemporary literary concerns. It is still too early to
tell what will become of the upstart Wiseblood Books, but such a strong
entry as this early on is a sign that it is heading in the right
A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills:
As the Russian great Anton Chekov infamously noted, when a loaded rifle appears on page one, it absolutely must go off. In A Waste of ShameGeoffrey Smagacz does not ignore this dramatic principle. Before the last page is turned, someone sadly pulls the trigger.
debuts a short novel and an accompanying collection of short stories
written in a vein that carries the blood of Hemingway, Wodehouse,
Nathaniel West, and Sherwood Anderson. Enter a small town where tragedy
collides with fish fry cooks, soap-opera addicts, and the convenient but
strained friendships of youth. Minimalist through and through, this is
literary fiction that scrupulously avoids being literary.
On December 15, 2013, A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills will be available for purchase via Amazon or www.wisebloodbooks.com.