Reckoning with Reckoning by Rusty Barnes

By Paul Adams 

The northern tip of the Appalachian region juts all the way up into the state of New York and encompasses a goodly portion of western and southern Pennsylvania. Physically close but culturally distant from Amish Country and the Liberty Bell, this area has more in common with West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee than with the East Coast. Resource-rich and money-poor, it is a place of great natural beauty, stubbornly independent locals, and sometimes shocking violence. This is the setting of Rusty Barnes' first novel, Reckoning.

Having been raised in that area, the reviewer can attest to the precision with which Reckoning captures its physical and human geography. Barnes nails it, with an ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for both the broad strokes of the environment and the little details that bring a place or character into focus. From the CDs on a shelf to the color of a rough girl's nail polish to the rinsing-off of dishes taken from under the couch, Barnes is able to parlay incidentals into a complete and vivid picture. By family tradition, a house has no bathroom doors. A boy is told to keep out of trouble by shooting ants with a pellet gun. Families who've lived in town for less than a century are still “flatlanders.” This world is wholly realized and presented through the carefully crafted mind of a teenage boy.

Reckoning is the story of an ordinary summer in the life of Richard Logan and its sudden interruption by chaotic forces of sex and violence. He and Katie, the new girl in town, come upon the naked body of an unconscious woman in the woods. This is Misty, a well wrought character combining jaded vulnerability and bruised innocence with the hard bark of a girl who has seen too much. Helping her back to town, they unleash a series of events, which draw them into conflict with a local thug, Lyle, and his criminal associates. Beset by conflicting adolescent urges and dangerous curiosity, Richard finds himself drawn ever deeper into the ugliness and darkness beneath the surface of the town while those he loves begin to suffer the consequences. The idle summer days become complex and troubled as the story rushes to a harrowing conclusion.

Barnes has previously published two collections of short stories and brings those skills to his first novel, which has a brisk pace and increasing momentum. As the novel unfolds it reveals many facets: coming-of-age tale, love story, mystery, character study, and dark revelation. Reckoning works because it takes the time and energy to establish a believable world and real characters, and then begins to dismantle the facade of that world and interrogate the true nature of those characters. It also works because it is true to its setting and to its narrator. Barnes' depiction of a small town in a rural area has all the expected horrors (pill addicts and scamsters and deers butchered in the front yard) but it is not a caricature of rural idiocy. Neighbors may snoop and scold, but they come to your defense and have philosophies of life and codes of honor. Characters act with dignity and depth, and the human and physical landscapes are beautifully sketched.

This is not a take-down of small-town Pennsylvania, but an exploration of the painful loss of innocence and the danger of peeking behind veils.  Although Richard lives the aimless and  insular life of an Appalachian adolescent, he is a bright boy with an intuition that there is something more. This fateful curiosity leads him to the novel's frightening climax, but also to meaningful connections. He is fascinated with the new girl Katie and the troubled out-of-towner Misty partly because they are part of another world. Richard's life has been limited to the very convincingly rendered small town in which no one is a stranger and secrets are impossible to keep. Barnes has done well in driving this point home, making Lyle not just a menacing criminal and an antagonist, but Richard's boss and boyfriend to Katie's mother. All the characters are connected by blood, history, or geography, and this lends the novel an air of claustrophobic suspense.

Although this book is certainly part of an Appalachian literary tradition, containing echoes of Pinckney Benedict's Dogs of God and some early Cormac McCarthy novels, the recent work which most often came to mind while reading it was Adrianne Harun's A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, which is set in British Columbia. Another first novel by an author better known for short stories, it is also narrated by a small-town boy from a rural area who is faced with an evil thug and a paralyzed community. Although profoundly different in many ways (Harun is more given to post-modern meta-fiction), both novels deal with a young boy discovering evil and questioning whether and how to confront it. More similar in form is the “literary thriller” A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, which has multiple narrators but echoes of Reckoning’s excellent dialogue and some of the same issues of rural youth and community secrets.

If this novel has a flaw, it is that Barnes seems to not entirely trust his audience. At the conclusion of a chapter full of well-crafted dialogue, keen observation, and Richard's own astute perceptions, the reader is told that “He felt as if he and Katie could be friends, but there was something else there too, complicated by Misty . . . they found her so vulnerable. But she talked tough.” There is nothing wrong with this, and in a lesser novel or a genre work it might be necessary to advance the plot or hammer out a character. In this case, however, Barnes has already given the reader all of that information and more; we have heard Misty's tough talk and observed her contradictory behavior and have seen Richard's conflicted attitudes toward his tom-boyish girlfriend and this intriguing older woman.  Barnes has very effectively brought the reader into this adolescent mind, and it is jarring to hear that “he was running on an internal compass that he trusted to point him the right way to go”, since this remark pulls the audience out of Richard's mind and seems to suggest some outside observer. The author has already shown us the boy's peculiar motivations and code of conduct through his actions, conversations, and scattered thoughts, so this isn't really necessary. The prose stands on its own, without the need for summation. This is, of course, a fine sort of problem to have, since it arises directly from the effectiveness and quality of the work.

This is an outstanding work which is simultaneously exciting and thoughtful. Strong on dialogue and atmosphere, it is recommended for the general reader but essential for anyone interested in the Appalachian region or its culture. At a compact 239 pages, this suspenseful novel moves quickly to a devastating climax  that will leave readers appalled but satisfied. It is a crisp and engaging story with fully developed characters, striking images, and an appealing wit.