Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fiction: The New Valley by Josh Weil

In his new collection of novellas, The New Valley (Grove Press), Josh Weil uses beautiful, stunning words to define men who don't have the first idea how to define themselves. Each tale unfolds in what appears to be the remotest areas of Virginia and West Virginia, and the geographical remoteness serves as a rich, telling metaphor for the remoteness of the men themselves.

How many collections like this have we read? How many authors use collections like this to establish their own distinct voice? Here, in his first collection, Weil seems to be sprinting in the opposite direction, doing all he can to avoid creating a distinct voice. He doesn’t seem interested in his own voice. Rather, all he seems to care about is crafting a voice for each story. The result is three pieces of work that live between hardcovers and rustic hills, but otherwise live on their own. It’s quite an achievement.

In sentence after sentence, on page after page, Weil hammers out these men on nothing less than an anvil of language. You can almost feel the searing heat as the tales are pounded into shape. So much seems to have been stripped back, the superfluous peeled away until almost the bare skeleton of story and character remain. Yet he leaves us telling details too -- and they sing. In high contrast to the hard edges of these stories, the author sprinkles in gentle, striking images. The language around them makes them all the more tasty, of course. “The moon was gone,” reads one, “but the stars still pinned up the night sky.” We’ve seen this image countless times before -- but when was the last time it was written in a way that took your breath away? It’s clear Josh Weil adores the power of words.

The New Valley is stark. The stories are sharp-edged, as I’ve said, but they’re much more than that. There’s an enviable depth to these characters, a layering of ideas that brings them to life in ways that might very well surprise even them. The tales walk up to you with confidence and look you square in the eye, unflinching. I am here, they say. Take me or leave me. The novellas aren’t like the men they portray; it feels more like they are the men they portray. In langauge that’s sure, quick, and almost magical in its ability conjure dimension from flat paper, Josh Weil has created portraits of hard lives that will stand the test of time.

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