Reviewed by Gonzalo Baeza
The gritty opening of Warren Read’s debut novel Ash Falls (2017) introduces us to convict Ernie Luntz. Serving time for murder, Luntz is being transported from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to a medium security prison. When the driver has a heart attack and the car crashes, Luntz trains “his eyes on the tiny farmhouses freckling the far horizon” and disappears into the countryside.
Luntz also vanishes from the story and instead becomes an ominous presence – an individual whose singular act of violence created a traumatic schism in the Pacific Northwest town of Ash Falls. Almost like a Chekhovian gun introduced in the opening act, whether Luntz will return to the scene of the crime –and the story– is a question that lingers in this accomplished novel driven by the strength of its characters.
Each chapter in Ash Falls is named after a character or a set of characters and told in a close third-person point of view. Through their stories, Read weaves a kaleidoscopic tapestry of a downtrodden community, where Luntz seems to be the embodiment of a deeper malaise brought by isolation and economic depression.
High school nurse Bobbie is Luntz’s ex-wife. She tries to carry on with her life and raise her teenage son Patrick on her own after her husband went to jail. Four years ago, Luntz was involved in an altercation with a group of teenagers. After one of the boys, Ricky Cordero, says “something” to Patrick, Luntz beats him to death. Read’s account of the event is deliberately muddled, just like real-life impactful happenings are often blurred by emotions and the convenient rationalizations that allow us to move on with life. Later on, we learn that Luntz is a Vietnam veteran who sometimes reacts violently, often sleepwalks, and may even have burnt down a building in town while in a state of somnambulism. Like a detective trying to build a narrative from disparate accounts, Read comes up with a story where past events pose as many questions as they provide answers.
There are hints that Bobbie once had an affair with former teacher Hank Kelleher, but Ernie’s crime seems to have driven them apart. Hank now sells pot and pays house visits to his typically impoverished, elderly customers. These interactions bring to mind the risks involved in his new trade and often make him doubt:
“It was moments like these – when things came unexpected, when the money didn’t match the promise, when caterwauling kids wandered from back bedrooms to paw at his things and ask nosy questions, or strangers suddenly showed up from nowhere – moments like these Hank found himself wondering what the hell turn he had taken in life to end up where he was. In a moist tin box dense with the smell of cat piss, choked with water-spotted furniture, shoeboxes coughing out forests of paper, and flaccid houseplants that looked the way he felt.”
Patrick works at a mink farm for the gruff Tin Dorsay and often spends the weekend in Seattle at the home of one Mama T, a woman who helps runaways. Her son, Shadow, is Patrick’s occasional lover. Patrick bears the weight of being Luntz’s son. While his introverted character doesn’t offer but glimpses of what he carries inside, he expresses his trauma in other ways, such as his queasiness when it comes to killing the minks he helps breed. “Does it hurt?” he asks his boss Tin, who explains that the animals are put to sleep with CO2 gas. “[T]here ain’t no such a thing as a nice way to kill something,” Tin says. “You can look at it any way you want, but that’s the God’s honest truth. It don’t matter if it’s a mink or a mouse or a mosquito. One minute there’s a life in front of you, and the next, it’s gone. By your hand.”
Like many residents of Ash Falls, Patrick feels confined by his own life and longs to leave town. These visions of freedom become entangled with his ambivalent sentiments toward his father:
“There were times when the news excited him, the vision of his father free of his own cage, wandering the countryside like a nomad, making his way, perhaps, back to Ash Falls, crouched in an open boxcar or thumbing for a ride along some lost highway. Even better, somewhere no one would ever find him. Other times (…) Patrick could only see his father as just another loose mink, slinking along the perimeter of the fence somewhere out there in the snow, searching for an opening or a deep rut where he could slip through and run free. Free, out into the openness of the roadway and a distant light, or directly into the path of an oncoming truck.”
The above is only a part of the vast map of fully realized characters and stories contained in Ash Falls, a novel that starts as a rural noir (which would explain why it has been compared to Daniel Woodrell’s work) but becomes a dark portrait of small town life in the vein of Kent Haruf – albeit grittier. But a rural novel is also a novel about the land, which Read captures in prose that is both lush and atmospheric, as the somber beauty of the Pacific Northwest helps set the tone for the story.
Read’s first book, The Lyncher in Me (2008), is a memoir about discovering his great-grandfather’s role in the lynching of three innocent men in 1920. In Ash Falls, Read once again explores buried trauma and the price of reckoning with the past but in a fictional work that hopefully is the first of many.
Gonzalo Baeza is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. His books have been published in the U.S., Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, Estados Hispanos de América, Tintas, and The Texas Review, among others.