Angels and Demons in an America Left Behind

It is dangerous to ask fiction to always be relevant, but when skilled writers reach for themes close to the heart, I can’t help but pick them up. Tales of Rust Belt cities or rural former mining towns have immediate resonance for me, and based on the evidence of thirty billion Trump era thinkpieces and resulting Ohio senatorial campaigns, I am not alone. Fiction at its best can tie themes together on more emotionally resonant levels than exacting reporting ever can, and two recent novels dove straight into this territory, telling two stories of children who come of age in forgotten places and cope in diametrically different ways.

The Rabbit Hutch is the tale of Blandine Watkins, nee Tiffany, who shares her apartment in the titular affordable housing development with three boys who, like her, are fresh out of foster care. She has a tortured relationship with her hometown, a fictional Indiana Rust Belt relic named Vacca Vale. (This city name, alas, only made me think of Vacaville, a wonderful Spanish-English mash-up of a name for a California city just north of the Bay Area.) She wanders the streets and tells the tale of her city’s decline, endures floods as its climate shifts, and becomes the lonely defender against a planned development in a cherished park named Chastity Valley. She takes on the name Blandine to channel one of her heroes, the early Christian female mystics who stood as lonely voices of protest against corrupt, crumbling systems. Whether she is a martyr like the real second-century Blandine is a question left to readers of this debut novel by Tess Gunty.

Like many first publications of American MFA program offspring, The Rabbit Hutch tries to do a lot, its voices not all consistent. Gunty, a South Bend native and Notre Dame alumna, clearly knows her territory, recasting Studebaker’s decline in that city through the tale of the Zorn Automobile Company in a wrenching examination of the remaining ruins. (Vacca Vale seems to lack any golden domes that might keep the outside money pouring in.) On the flip side, the threatened redevelopment of Chastity Valley is cartoonish, the sadness of Blandine’s teacher seducer an eternal cringe. I thought the whole thing could have held together just fine sans the amusing, meandering story of Moses Blitz, the exhibitionist who spurs along Blandine’s rapture. (Perhaps this should have been novel number two.) The undercurrent of absurdity built through digression after digression takes oxygen away from the reality of the rabbits in the hutch, too many of them left to too small parts in Blandine’s drama.

Blandine’s drama, however, can carry a story on its own. She brushes up against the other Rabbit Hutch inhabitants, all seeking some stability in chaotic lives, in a series of poignant set pieces. Her three roommates fall into tropes but all illustrate something valuable: social media pretty boy Malik, aloof Todd, and everyman Jack, who takes the narrative reins to rationalize the absurdity of the whole affair. Gunty’s decision to let Todd illustrate the novel’s climax in drawings adds a twist to Blandine’s long-foreshadowed fate, one of many bold thrusts by our author, whose creative range is wide enough to make the thing worth reading and hope she returns to Vacca Vale for more.

Gunty had the misfortune of emerging at the same time that a great institution of American literature took up some of the same themes. Barbara Kingsolver has been churning out bestselling literary fiction for years, and last fall she provided an update on Dickens’ David Copperfield in Demon Copperhead, its characters reborn in turn-of-the-millennium Appalachia, stripped of their Victorian morals and cast adrift in a sea of heroin and meth and Oxy. A 67-year-old woman surges out in a teenage boy, keen in his insight and dry in his humor, wrenchingly tender and hard as nails, descending into the deepest recesses of an American hellscape to produce one of the more compelling narrative voices I’ve encountered. Kingsolver’s book was one of the most absorbing I’ve read in years.

Demon Copperhead, nee Damon Fields, is born to a drug addict mother in a single-wide in Lee County, Virginia. His dad died in a place named the Devil’s Bathtub, and until the foster care system intervenes he is raised largely by his neighbors, the Peggotts, who are themselves raising a grandchild of the same age left behind by an incarcerated mother. He bounces from home to home, treated horribly, his only support from other kids, most notably the alluring Fast Forward, a magnetic high school football star who introduces ten-year-olds to pharm parties. Even when Demon secures an intervention from his rigid paternal grandmother and seems to reach a clear road through middle school, his own athletic success writes a prescription for his undoing. What follows is a brutal tale of addiction and life on the edge, an immersion in the inner workings of a boy still somehow seized by an instinct to persevere.

Demon and Blandine are twinned orphans of American collapse. Demon gets subjected to exploitative foster parents, though finds some support in inspiring teachers; Blandine wins the foster parent lottery, but gets wrecked by the teacher who takes her under his wing. Eminently practical Demon learns how to play the game and get by in any situation, which in Lee County leads him straight toward trouble; Blandine seeks a transcendent plane above her besotted surroundings, only to have them come crashing down on her naiveté. Hopes and dreams for either of them would imply an escape from their stations, yet Demon comes to own his roots, while Blandine is Vacca Vale’s most ardent environmental champion and/or ecoterrorist. The U-Haul escape is never so easy as any outsider might think, especially where there is a creepy snake of a man named U-Haul filling the role of Uriah Heep to Demon’s David Copperfield.

It is worth pondering Demon’s fate for a moment to see how far the world has come since David Copperfield. Dickens’ orphans, after all, did not have to contend with the pill mills of Appalachia, and that era’s concerns about sex look quaint in retrospect. There is a quiet but present Wendell Berry-style lament about modernity in Kingsolver’s prose, as successive generations of Appalachians lose touch with the skills necessary for self-sufficiency and the deeper cultural byways (sustained, in Demon’s world, by a Black transplant form Chicago), all flattened by mass media and consumer capitalism and doped-out societal collapse. But at the same time there are more ladders out, more however imperfect supports, more pathways for the Angus Winfields and June Peggotts to rise up and then return and tackle injustices head-on. And while New York Times reviewer Molly Young finds Demon’s eventual fate sorry in comparison to Copperfield’s ascend to Dickensian fame, it is also far more realistic: maybe Damon Fields can’t be a global celebrity, but maybe he can be a clean, decent guy with a loving girl who looks out for his people and provides stability in a place that needs it. If that is a condemnation of this era, may we all be so damned.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that contemporary fiction is at its best when it can take the slightly longer view. I have yet to read a tale of the Covid-19 pandemic or Trump Era America that truly compels me; these works always seem freighted with a try-hard quest for relevance, and wear their politics a bit too brazenly, and the climate change and redevelopment angles of The Rabbit Hutch fall right into that vein. Far more powerful are the retrospectives like Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads and now Demon Copperhead, which look back across a few decades with sage eyes. Somewhere in here lies the enduring power of the social novel in an era of information and new media overload: it allows for meditation, for slow thought, for careful processing of what has transpired in a lifetime. It escapes the noise of the zeitgeist to pick out what should endure. (The great novelists who do write in the present, like Sally Rooney, achieve the same state by stripping out the superfluous details and allusions, boiling their prose down to the essentials.) Twenty years on from the start of the opioid epidemic, Kingsolver’s thundering moral authority punches harder because we, as readers, know exactly what will come of it, and while some of her jabs at the system that created hillbilly elegies land better than others, they all add up to an undeniable truth about the nation it has wrought. Her work is no less political than The Rabbit Hutch, but time allows it to get the perspective a bit more right.

Both The Rabbit Hutch and Demon Copperhead are deeply invested in their young protagonists. There is a risk here of sentimentality, of falling too far in love with these kids battered by forces beyond their control who nonetheless dream of more. But while not all fiction can have happy endings, neither can it all be portents of doom: it can instead tell a story that stands alone outside of any great arcs of progress or decline, speaking for itself and any relevance felt on a deeper plane by its readers. Moreover, great social novels not only reveal reality as it is or was, but can also nudge their readers, however gently, toward belief in something more. Somewhere in here lies the triumph of storytelling, an experience both immersive and thought-provoking that is more necessary than ever in a world of endless digital distraction. This is what good fiction should do.