Anger is front and center in Roger Alan Skipper’s atmospheric second novel. Here, deep in the West Virginia hills, white working-class men struggle for a toehold in fast-changing rural communities. There’s gentrification, with prefab developments clouding the landscape, and a bevy of Latino immigrants moving into what were once homogeneous enclaves. What’s more, old-timers are aghast that the entertainment of yesteryear — especially fishing — is being replaced by newer diversions.
The story revolves around 58-year-old widower and Vietnam vet Lane Hollar, the owner of a bait and tackle shop. Most area residents keep Lane at arm’s length. Laconic, sharp-tongued and exacting — maybe even hard-assed and cold — he’s a man with few friends. Listening to him is a cultural excursion: his talk is salted with words like “reservoy” for reservoir, and phrases like “hows come,” “hair near” and “dadblameit.” He is a beautifully drawn character’s character.
As Skipper tells it, Lane has been content to live simply since returning from Nam thirty-plus years ago. That changes one morning when he and his 12-year-old grandson, Toby, are fishing. Just as the boy nails The Big One, shots ring out and local misfit Billy Bean ends up in the lake. Lane is convinced it’s murder, but an autopsy reveals that Bean drowned. Worse, folks at the lake, including Toby, deny having heard the gunshots. Is Lane losing it? Or are others too scared to talk?
Lane determines to do what law enforcement will not: investigate Bean’s demise. As he digs, his life turns inside out. His store is vandalized; his home is invaded; he is fired at and wounded.
Skipper’s compelling narrative explores the mysteries of who did what to whom and butts up against such issues as aging, community development, death, family ties, friendship, racism, romance and substance abuse. The result is gripping, honest and often surprising.
Lane describes one encounter as “tearing at his ear like fence wire dragged through a rusted staple.” In the end, that’s the novel — a tense but wholly engaging, entertaining and original look at the heroes and villains of everyday life.