Fast Falls the Night, the sixth of Julia Keller’s series of novels set in fictional Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is, like the others, a mystery. Its puzzle is solved in a sharp and scary twist in its final three pages.
In fact, there are several abrupt and unsettling turns in the last chapter or so.
But, as with the other books, the plot here is secondary to larger concerns that Keller has — questions of hope and despair, and of right and wrong.
“That kind of day”
Consider this scene early in the book. Shirley Dolan has come to an unfamiliar minister to talk about two secrets she is holding close to her heart. When she tries to light a cigarette in the careworn study, the pastor tells her that smoking isn’t permitted.
The pack went back into her purse. She dropped the purse on the floor, using her heel to wedge it under her chair. To keep it out of the way. Out of her reach. So that she didn’t forget and go for a cigarette all over again. It had been that kind of day. That kind of week. The kind when you forget things. Screw up. Repeat mistakes.
Hell. It had been that kind of life….
She was fifty-five-years-old. She had a bony butt and a pleated face and stringy yellow-gray hair that fled down her back. She was, in other words, as old and used-up as the décor in this office.
Notice how closely observed this is — how Shirley’s foot nudges the purse under the chair — and how closely felt it is, too. Keller lets Shirley’s inner monologue tell the story of a day….a week…a life of screw-ups and mistakes.
It’s an honest take-no-prisoners self-appraisal: Shirley knows — and accepts — that she has “a bony butt” and “a pleated face” and is “old and used up.” She doesn’t particularly like who she has become, but she doesn’t run from that woman. She doesn’t pretend.
Face to face with these and other hard facts, Shirley doesn’t despair.
Like Shirley, Fast Falls the Night stands face to face with hard facts, but doesn’t despair.
Bleak present and grim future
I’m tempted to say that Shirley is the embodiment of the battered and dying town of Acker’s Gap, but, in fact, every one of the townspeople who makes an appearance in Keller’s novel is a personification of the town.
Fast Falls the Night tells the story of a single day in Acker’s Gap. During those 24 hours, each resident — from Danny Lukens, the clerk at the all-night Marathon gas station, to Raylene Hughes, the single mother using her five-year-old in a cancer scam, to Bell Elkins, Shirley’s sister and the county prosecutor — has to come to grips with the town’s bleak present and grim future.
As well as their own.
It’s a desolate present and future that hits everyone in the face in the form of a town-wide crisis of dozens of drug overdoses from tainted heroin.
“Same dark turning”
Dot Burette is one of the few winners in the town. Then, her world comes crashing down when the niece she has raised as if she were her daughter dies as the first victim in the plague of overdoses.
Gone is the perfectly manicured professional who has “held herself apart from her tattered hometown” as if above the decay.
That woman had disappeared. This one has a voice reaching deep into the flinty past of her ancestors from the hills of West Virginia, smearing itself with the mud of coarseness and casual brutality.
As the drug overdoses start to pile up, one of the two deputy prosecutors, Rhonda Lovejoy, tells Bell Elkins that she’d like to take a quick look into the cancer scam that Raylene Hughes is running, quipping bitterly that, at least, it would be something different.
Bell gave her a level stare. Ronda knew as well as she did that in Acker’s Gap, things always seemed to be linked; all things were part of the same dark turning.
“Beautiful heartbreak of a world”
At the Marathon, Danny Lukens has similar thoughts. Sitting alone in the brightly lit store, he is intensely aware of the deep dark outside and, even more, of the mountains out there, looming over him and the town, even if just a deeper black against the black of night.
Those mountains had been lording over him his whole life, reminding him how puny he was, how insignificant. It was little wonder that nobody Danny knew gave a damn about anything. Those mountains cast a spell. They kept you in your place, here in what his grandma used to call this beautiful heartbreak of a world.
This is the human condition we all face, but, in Acker’s Gap, it’s much harder to ignore — much harder than amid the clean lawns and gleaming subdivisions of, say, a Chicago suburb.
Hope and hurt
At a particularly bleak moment in the day, Afghanistan War veteran Eddie Sutton is told that his love for his five-year-old daughter has touched the hearts of others.
He wanted to believe her, but he was also afraid to believe her. Hope could hurt. It could turn on you at any time.
This is the devil’s dilemma that everyone in Acker’s Gap must face. They live in a world of pain, and it’s easy to despair, and each knows, “Hope could hurt.”
Almost everywhere the characters in Fast Falls the Night turn, there is someone whose life has gone off the rails. One of the few exceptions, though, seems to be Tammy Kincaid, once a small-time drug-dealer but now in love with LaVerne Pugh. And it seems to Bell Elkins that Tammy may be on her way to a life with maybe more joy than sorrow.
Maybe, just this once, they were actually witnessing a happy ending. Maybe love really had changed Tammy Kincaid. Surely the probabilities of life — even life in Acker’s Gap — meant that, once in a blue moon, somebody changed for the better, cleaned themselves up, took hold, moved forward. Like the statisticians say: If you flip a coin and it comes up heads a hundred times in a row, what are the odds it will come up heads on the hundred -and-first try. Fifty-fifty.
But over these particular 24 summer hours, hope is often difficult to conjure up as a tainted batch of heroin is poisoning one addict after another, eventually overdosing 33 and leading to three deaths.
Make that five deaths since the search for the dealer leads to a shootout at a seedy motel during which two are slain, one of whom is a likeable, respected, loved friend of many of the central characters in Keller’s novel.
The death of this character is in sharp contrast to the overdoses of the addicts who many are quick to write off as the victims of self-destructive behavior.
Jake Oakes, the sheriff’s deputy who is called to the scene of the first overdose — Dot Burdette’s niece — knows the girl’s sad story.
Once, she had been “a bright-eyed kid on a tricycle” who, through drugs, had been transformed into “a shaking, shuffling, emaciated teenager with blank eyes and rusty sores on her arms….fallen victim to the Appalachian virus: drug addiction.”
His fellow deputy, Steve Brinksneader, sees things in a different way. During a meeting, he urges the other law enforcement officers to take his point of view of what he sees as the hard facts.
“Word of caution here. Don’t forget that these folks take the drugs willingly. They’re not what you’d call innocent bystanders.”
Later, he says to Oakes:
“Who gives a crap if there’s one less junkie in Raythune County? Or five less? Or ten? I mean — come on, Jake. It’s natural selection. World’s better off.”
“Don’t you dare”
What’s right? What’s wrong? These are the questions that most of Keller’s characters wrestle with in Fast Falls the Night.
How blameless are the addict-victims? Do they need to be blameless for authorities to work to save them?
Some characters have made up their minds, such as Brinksneader and Dr. Vernon Childress, the head of the local hospital.
During a meeting with Childress, tough-as-nails Pam Harrison mentions that the epidemic of drug overdoses was the county’s version of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But Childress won’t hear it:
“Don’t. Do not say that. You don’t get to say that. Not in my hospital.
“Don’t you dare…Don’t you dare make that comparison in my hearing. They victims of nine-eleven were professionals. Bankers and attorneys and executives. People who mattered. But these — these addicts — did this to themselves.
“They caused this. They’re weak. They’re selfish. They don’t care about anybody but themselves. They’re lucky we don’t just leave them out in the street to die. That’s what they deserve.”
In the face of this angry tirade, Harrison thinks to herself, “Hope to God I don’t sound like that.”
And then she tells Childress that he’s gotten his wish. The latest overdose is the town’s one multimillion-dollar attorney.
Deputy prosecutor Rhonda Lovejoy sees more to drug addiction than the assertion by Childress that it’s selfish.
She understands that living in Acker’s Gap means facing an oppressive present and a bleaker future.
When asked why so many people around her used drugs and alcohol, Rhonda always wanted to say, Well, it’s the quickest way out of Acker’s Gap.
It’s an unusual crime novel that is willing to grapple with such existential issues and willing, amid all the misery, to find goodness — to recognize the longing for goodness and the toil reaching for it entails.
Fast Falls the Night is that kind of novel.
And, come to think of it, it’s not that unusual. Each of Keller’s earlier five novels in the series is that kind of novel.
Patrick T. Reardon