[T]hey talk about the mountains and nature when they speak about God,” says Carter Sickels, referring to the Appalachia of his debut novel. “West Virginians speak again and again of finding salvation in the mountains.” The Evening Hour: A Novel, a finalist for the 2013 Oregon Book Award, Sickels exhibits an array of characters looking for forms of salvation beyond the conventionally spiritual.
Cole Freeman, the 27-year-old nursing home aide and prescription drug dealer at the heart of the novel, can't seem to pull himself out of his stasis; neither his fire-and-brimstone grandfather nor his burgeoning love interests can manage to jolt him from his ennui. A similar kind of ennui fills many of the residents of his hometown of Dove Creek. The old-timers stay put and stay quiet, while the young people, like Cole's customer and friend Reese Campbell, itch to leave—but don't. Only when their mountain home starts to crumble, courtesy of the invading coal company, do these residents begin to move. Yet even amid escalating murmurs of environmental peril, Cole tries to keep his head down, hiding his feelings as deep as he hides his drug money.
Unfortunately, a majority of the text itself suffers from an inertia that mirrors Cole's. The first half of the narrative moves as slowly as the octogenarians at the nursing home. Instead of action, the novel presents its readers with a large, overwhelming cast. While some of these players delight—Sickels describes Cole's mother, the lost sheep returned to make good, with particular animation—many do not receive the space necessary for satisfactory development. As a result, characters whose presence Sickels tries to imbue with meaning, like Luke Cutter (the homo-erotically portrayed preacher with "deep eyes, Jesus-like eyes") sometimes fade into the background. Conversely, the second half of the story tries to make up for lost time by hurtling toward a conclusion at an unmanageable clip.
The Evening Hour has grand aspirations, but it lacks the length and depth necessary for an epic. While the novel possesses some lovely moments, like the heart-wrenching scene in which Cole fills a grocery cart filled with toys for his girlfriend's daughter, Sickels attempts to untangle so many complex issues that we become intimate with only a few. The tension with Cole's childhood friend Terry Rose, for example, feels diluted and unnecessary. Similarly, the novel tries hastily to conclude the conflict with Cole's faith in its last few pages, but the issue never feels fully resolved. The lack of depth of Cole's last epiphany leaves the reader guessing as to its credibility, rather than musing on its accuracy.
At the beginning of his story, Cole sees himself as a "small, unsaved man," but by the end, as Cole follows the same thought patterns and makes the same mistakes, we wonder if Cole has truly managed to find salvation. The narrative's swift conclusion, however, leaves us with less ambiguity about Sickels' novel: it cannot save itself. The reader walks away from Dove Creek feeling less redeemed than disappointed.
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