The summer I was 7, my parents moved from a two-story house on the wrong side of the park to a one-story bungalow on the park's better side. It was a calculated move, intended to give my brother and me a step up from the blue-collar lives of our Indiana relatives. My dad unloaded my pet bunny from the moving van on a hot July afternoon, and I brought him some water. Moments later, he began to scream. That scream came back to me as I read the opening pages of Kevin Canty's new novel, The Underworld.
If you're brave enough to read past the rabbit dying in the first chapter—a harbinger of things to come—you'll be rewarded with a brisk, smart, evocative story that feels uncannily relevant to the current state of our union. As I read, I had to remind myself that the Missoula author and faculty member in the University of Montana's creative writing program had no crystal ball when he wrote this book, no way to predict how divided our country now is.
I'll admit I'd been craving a book that would act as a literary escape hatch from this reality to another, the way the series Stranger Things drew me into the fascinating tale of the Upside Down last summer. While The Underworld sticks to realism, it explores dark territory in a similarly thrilling fashion, tricking you into reflecting on the things that keep you up at night by drawing you into the problems of others. Problems articulated with insight and wrapped in riveting descriptions. Problems that outweigh your own (I hope).
The Underworld is set in and around Silverton, Idaho, circa 1972. The mine where most of the local men work is a literal underworld. After a fire sweeps through the mine, grief becomes a figurative underworld, which survivors are left to navigate alone.
The story, I'm guessing, is inspired by a fire that broke out in 1972 in the Sunshine Mine, located between Kellogg and Wallace. The details line up: A fire ravages the mine on what should have been a normal workday. Ninety-one men died and 83 men survived, the last two rescued days after the fire started.
The book is told in the voices of three main characters. David is a college student in Missoula, dragged home after the tragedy. Ann is a young miner's wife whose ambivalence about motherhood, marriage and small-town life is amplified by grief. And Lyle is a long-time miner whose vocation and drinking drove off the one woman he loved years ago. He keeps drinking and mining because it's all he knows.
Canty's use of multiple narrators captures the ethos of the community in a way that recalls one of my favorite novels, The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks, a story about a tragic school bus accident, which is also told using rotating third-person limited point-of-view. This structure allows the reader a bird's-eye view of events while keeping us grounded in the specific. As the tragedy unravels, each character's story bleeds into the next. I binge-read The Underworld, staying up late to find out what would become of these characters.
I've known grief before, though never on such a large scale. Based on his descriptions, I'd guess Canty has known grief as well. Ann, ". . . walks like she's mad at the ground." David's father describes everyone as sleepwalkers. Life in the first days after the tragedy is an "in-between" that survivors fill with drinking, sex, violence, despair and more drinking.
One thing I've learned from grief is that destruction leads to construction, and post-fire life in Silverton is no exception. I read through the ending of this book at record pace to discover how these characters would navigate the in-between. It was gratifying to see hints of growth and a brighter future in the seeds of their last actions.
More so than any other artform, fiction allows us to stand in the shoes of others. If these characters lived in the here-and now, I'd be more likely having read this book to commiserate with them over beers instead of engaging in pointless political arguments on social media. The Underworld reminds me that, for the most part, we all want the same thing—honest work in exchange for a sustainable life that won't cost us a lung or a liver before our gray hairs come in. Reading deepens our capacity for compassion, which makes it an antidote to what divides us.
But that's not the only reason to read The Underworld. Read it for the velocity of the story. Read it to escape your own long winter and let your problems shrink in comparison. Read it to hang out in a world created by a fiction master whose sentences are lessons in economy and precision. Read it if you are one of those (like me) who made it out. Read it if you're one who stayed. Read it if you're somewhere in the middle. Because the in-between is often the hardest place to be, like being trapped underground without a ladder. Canty reminds us that we all emerge, one way or another, changed.
Kevin Canty reads from The Underworld at Fact & Fiction Tue., March 7, at 7 PM.