Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm
The fading summer days of August were the perfect setting for David Connerley Nahm's Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky. Opening on a summer night of children telling stories only hinted at, we feel the loss that comes in a summer night, the loss and the transitions: "This was the first summer they spend listening to songs they are not allowed to listen." Then suddenly, summer is gone "And then the fall is gone and the winter comes slinking in on the low sky." The loss that comes with the season's passing is a constant river running through the novel, sometimes underground, other times rising to the surface, in a trickle or a rush.
Two narratives run in Ancient Oceans: the childhood of Leah Shepherd and her brother, Jacob, with their family, and Leah's adult life after she becomes detached from family. This is the central loss of the book, the slowly revealed tragic fate of her brother. Transitions between the two are sometimes clear, with separation between paragraphs, and at other points sentences move through time right from one to the other. Between the past and the present are the timeless periods, single lines set off, a short paragraph, lacking context, drifting, asking the reader to find a place for this memory, thought, dialogue, "Lightening cracks and the world is static. Night, the night yard, the faraway street light."
In the narrative of adult Leah, we see an empty life, an emptied person, transitioning from work to home to work without verve or spirit. Working at a shelter for abused women, Leah is excellent at her job, rewarded by the local chamber of commerce, but finds no joy in the reward. Set against the admiration of others, her hollowed out self is easily distinguishable: "despite all of the people she knew who remarked upon her obvious compassion and tireless caring, despite all of this, she didn't feel it." Her memories, her past, the way that the narrative of her youth insists on interrupting the timeline of the story with the eruptions, glimpses, and conversations from unknown times that suggest, more insistently as the book goes on, that there is a reason she is hollowed. We long to know it, for her to confess it through the omniscient narrator, even if it won't take her beyond the moment in her youth after which she stopped being able to live. Like the story itself, Leah's life is in fragments, sometimes time holds together and there is a continuous story to follow, but, much of the time, all she -- all we -- have is fragments.
For all that, Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is not a novel built on plot and characters, though they are engaging, but a novel that glides and flies on its prose. The very first sentence ends ""surrounds the town cemetery and they tell strange stories to stall the night's trundle."" "T" and "s" sounds dominate, but are completely unforced, calling out to each other, and landing on a less-than-common word, trundle. It's beautiful, but it's a first sentence, so is it a hook, a dance to draw us in, can Nahm keep this up throughout? He absolutely can. It's not like every sentence is thrillingly pitch-perfect, but so many are:
Day and night there was only the cacophonous roar of nature, a throbbing thrum of insect and animal life chattered like cold teeth on a bone, the clickity-clucking of hard-shelled creepers and segmented crawlers that the mind could not fathom the splendor of, the soprano trilling twitters of bright yellow and red sylvan oddities, the howls of hounds harrowing the valley like a rude blade with a taste for soil.
Not only is the sound and pacing of Nahm's prose magnificent, the reason to read Ancient Oceans, but also it has little in common with contemporary American prose. It's a rarity, playing out its own rhythm and diction. Sentences and paragraphs pile up on one another, related, but wholly independent. There isn't always a direct, cause and effect move from one sentence or paragraph to another. Much of the time, they could be reordered and the same sense would hold, but the sound, the lilts and rises would be changed, and it's not hard to imagine Nahm ordering and reordering, before finding the tattoo to carry through.
At times, this style may drift too much, become too detached, but this never lasts long. In one section, set off from the rest, Nahm pushes this as far as he can take it, expanding summer and time to the whole town, sentences rushing after one another without break, reaching into the depths of that ocean to find the oddities and complexities of people, like a "father who wanted silence so much that he went so far as to plan on puncturing his ear drums with knitting needles." It's a section where Nahm may not fully pull off the trick, but it's a bold attempt and if it is a failure, it's the kind you want to discover.
Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky stands out from much of recent American writing simply through the setting. Contemporary literature is dominated to the point of cliché by Brooklyn novels, but there are also Manhattan novels, other cities, and when a novel does go rural, it's so often the "gritty, real America" and feels a purposeful counter-point to the city setting. Nahm's work here is simply Kentucky, US. There is deep attachment, a clearly felt home, the ancient ocean of the title giving over a prehistoric sense of always having been there.
In the emptiness of Leah's adult life, there is something familiar to American writing: the dominance of work in our lives, and its deadening effect: "Leah flipped through the file, the pleadings, the invoices, the notices, without looking up." Buried in paperwork is human suffering, just part of the drudgery. Nahm also has a tendency to catalogue American life, the stores, the shopping, the possessions, in a way that is reminiscent of DeLillo, but with less cold criticism and more sentiment. In one summer Sunday memory, Jacob has a "red face," "white fists," and "blue pleated shorts." The flag there is subtle, but it's still there, Americana on every page, but without being tied down to any literary tradition.
If Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky follows any tradition, it's of summer -- its pains and joys, its stillness and the rush of time. Even when a season isn't clear, the long months of summer come in like the tide. Summer is evoked in details: "One evening her father walked her to the arcade on the pier, her shorts heavy with quarters dredged from her mother's purse." Instantly, effortlessly, I remember those childhood summers, pockets sagging from the weight of coins or tokens, annoying, but as the shorts lighten, it means the allotment of play is running out.
Time is different in those summers of childhood, the endless days then suddenly gone. Infinity seems possible those days, and there is joy in that, but deep sadness also: what is good may never end, but what is painful may not either.
Every night is every night that ever was all at once and every lonely boy prone in his bed is every lonely girl prone in hers, chest heaving with that painful pressure of hoping that there is someone out there unable to sleep on their account.
For Leah, it is the threat in the infinite that carries on. Fear and darkness lurk in Nahm's Kentucky summer. It's not enough to know that something awful happens to Jacob, but absurd or non-specific sinister-ness appears again and again. Jacob is terrified of mushrooms on pizza because he'd been told "mushrooms were man's only natural predator." Boys hunt crawdads in a stream, and after being unsettled by a man watching him, Jacob notices "On the cement are the bodies of crawdads they caught and crushed under their shoes." This man, lurking throughout the summer, and the casual cruelty of children, haunt you. The haunting doesn't leave, carries through to Leah's adult life, when a car found on the side of the road and never claimed speaks of violence that can hide in silence.
Eventually, we do uncover why Leah cannot move past that summer, cannot live as an adult, cannot break the silences that haunt her. We understand the repeated chorus of the book, a plaintive "Leah! Leeaaah!" Though we have facts, have a completed narrative, it does not mean that we can forget that summer either, nor it's poetic haunting:
And the boy sunk to the bottom of the sea and the slow churn of the ancient ocean turned his bones to dust and turned the dust to stone and over the silent turning of the bottom of the ocean, no light fell and his name was lost among the shards of the bone and shell.
Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm
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