Book Review

The Rope Swing, Jonathan Corcoran’s smart debut collection, has West Virginia written on its soul. Eight of ten stories feature West Virginians in West Virginia. The remaining two follow West Virginian expats homesick in New York. The only way the book could possibly be more red-blooded West Virginian would be if Corcoran himself hailed from the Mountain State, which he does. West Virginia is so thoroughly a part of The Rope Swing that a review of the collection must begin with the granddaddy of West Virginian short fiction: Breece D’J Pancake.

Pancake was another West Virginia native who wrote exclusively of his home state, publishing a number of stories in The Atlantic in the late ’70s before taking his own life. Joyce Carol Oates, in one review, compared his posthumous debut collection—The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake—to Hemingway’s In Our Time. Pancake’s prose is famously clean and hard, as are his characters. His West Virginia is one of coal miners, snowplow drivers, and tugboat mates; boardinghouses, diners, and trailers; teenage prostitutes, moonshine and guns. Pancake gave us glorious, gritty Appalachia in the postwar industrial heyday, echoes of which reverberate throughout The Rope Swing. That said, instead of aiming for a Breece D’J Pancake remake, Corcoran shoots for something more complex and hits the bull’s-eye, introducing us to a more nuanced West Virginia of modern times.

Post-industrial and globalized, the old economy is a memory in The Rope Swing. In its place we have “the old, crumbling buildings, rising up from the cracked sidewalks” and “the brick and block shells of old factories aged with soot and lack of use.” Wide, new highways connect hollowed-out mountain towns, making it easier to get from shuttered Main Street to the nearest Walmart. The coal mines have closed and the railroad is decommissioning the last running train. People still drink more than they probably should, and now there are opiates as well. Oh, and immigrants live here. Gay people, too. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Importantly, The Rope Swing’s bleak economic landscape does not directly carry over into the lives of the characters nor the tone of the collection. Corcoran juxtaposes renewing natural beauty and personal reinvention against industrial decay, glancing new opportunities against those that have closed.

Take the opening story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” told in the first person plural. The story describes a town’s farewell ceremony for a decommissioned railroad. As the train prepares to leave the station one last time, the collective mood is far more multifaceted than we might expect: “Living here was both a gift and a test, and one day the secret to life would fall from a mountain face and land in front of our shoes. One of us would rise up again, like Christ himself, and save the world from itself.”

Nowhere is the tension between the “gift” and “test” of West Virginia more deftly drawn than Corcoran’s exploration of the lives of gay characters. In the collection’s eponymous story, two high school boys test the waters of their sexuality amid the privacy of a woodsy riverbank and intense fear of being discovered. “Pauly’s Girl” can be read as a eulogy to a small town’s beloved gay florist of forty years. The collection’s best story, “Through the Still Hours,” features a gay couple ringing in their fourth anniversary with problems in bed and sparks of hostility in town.

While there certainly exists a degree of openness in The Rope Swing that is difficult to imagine in Pancake’s era, Corcoran does not make West Virginia into some multicultural paradise. Hateful words are yelled from passing trucks, barroom doors, bathroom stalls. The threat of violence is always close at hand. Fear abounds. And yet—and this is key to the collection’s superpower—the very characters who suffer most from West Virginia can’t help but love the place.

This love-hate relationship pervades The Rope Swing, embodied by characters gay and straight, employed and jobless, male and female, young and old. One reason it’s so powerful is because the theme transcends place and time, from Corcoran’s West Virginia all the way back to Pancake’s. Forty years ago Pancake wrote, “I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave.” The words very much speak volumes about the “gift” and “test” of the state, all the more so when we learn that Pancake’s narrator is working a failing farm and chasing a girl he’ll never catch. Corcoran extends the conversation a beat further with his final two stories, featuring West Virginians who did in fact leave. The narrator of “Brooklyn, 4 A.M.” has lived a decade in the Big Apple, yet still loses sleep to nostalgia:

He wonders if he made the wrong decision in choosing to run away to New York so many years ago—so long ago, in fact, that the names of the streets and the faces of his childhood are beginning to slip away. Now what he knows of that long-ago place is like a taste memory. He’ll catch a smell of wild onion in a restaurant, and then he’s on his hands and knees in the woods behind his house, digging for roots.  

Corcoran does a great service to the tradition of West Virginian fiction, contributing a strong, fresh voice. The Rope Swing is a contemporary ode to a place of stunning natural beauty, economic uncertainty, shifting social patterns, and hidden opportunity. It is excellent fiction and necessary for our time.

About the Reviewer

Nick Fuller Googins’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in NPR’s All Things Considered, Ecotone, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Oxford American, The Common and elsewhere. He volunteers as a reader for A Public Space and a mentor for the writing organization, We Are Not Numbers. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA Program.