Near the very end of Julia Keller’s latest Acker’s Gap novel The Cold Way Home (Minotaur, 306 pages, $27.99), Jake Oakes wants something that he knows he may never get, and he tells the woman he loves, Molly Drucker:
“I can’t wait and hope. It hurts too much. I don’t want to hope anymore.”
“We can’t give up on hope,” was Molly’s quiet reply.
“Why not? Why the hell not? What’s so special about hope?”
“Sweetheart,” Molly said… “It’s all we’ve got. It’s all anybody’s got.”
The Cold Way Home is a novel about pain and oppression, about twisted loyalties and dead-end addictions, about commission and confession, about easily snuffed-out passion and enduring friendship, about the grind of making ends meet and the sap and the decay of roots.
It is also a mystery involving two murders that are solved by former county prosecutor Belfa Elkins and her fellow investigators, mysteries involving a long-leveled state hospital for women who, in their homes, didn’t fit in and who suffered from the hands of the hospital staff. A mystery that ends with a showdown in a forest between Bell and the killer.
It is, as all of Keller’s Acker’s Gap novels are, about small-town West Virginia, beaten down by predatory mining companies and drug firms, by loss of jobs and exploitation and malevolent neglect. Acker’s Gap, the county seat, doesn’t have even enough money to keep the street lights on at night.
Above all, though, The Cold Way Home is a novel about the courage of hope.
The hope that Jake and Molly talk about at the end of the novel.
And the hope that comes like a star’s sudden bright light in a cloud break on the darkest night in the book’s opening scene in the greasy Burger Boss — in the toilet of the greasy Burger Boss where two EMTs and a sheriff’s deputy are trying to save the life of “a rag doll of a woman, a skinny ravaged-looking, barefoot thing in denim cutoffs,” sitting on the bowl, her syringe fallen onto the floor, already covered with her vomit.
Administered naloxone, the young woman goes into instant withdrawal, brought back from overdose but angry as hell.
It’s left to Deputy Steve Brinksneader to take the uncooperative woman either to the hospital or to jail, and, despite her flailing at him, he lifts her, as professionally as possible, off the bowl:
On account of his extra effort the woman popped off the toilet like a cork plucked from a bottle.
And then it gushed out of her, the thick river of pinkish-yellow fluid, the dropped gob of blood and pus and some kind of dangling…rope.
Shocked, Brinksneader calls the EMTs back, and they fish out of the toilet bowl “the tiny white dripping blob” — a newborn baby.
It’s a boy, Steve thought, scanning the tiny white blob. It’s a boy.
The EMTs do what’s needed for the baby before rushing him to the hospital while Brinksneader brings the woman — “He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t call her ‘the mother.’ Not even in his thoughts” — out to his squad and puts her in the back seat.
Tommy Kilgore, one of the EMTs, a big, muscular, barrel-chested man, says to Brinksneader,
“Do you friggin’ believe this?….A baby in friggin’ Burger Boss”…
In the glare of the blue light, [Brinksneader] saw the look in Tommy’s eyes. Despite the unthinkable circumstances that surrounded this baby’s birth, despite the horror of a woman so lost in her addiction that she didn’t know she’d given birth — hell, she didn’t even know she was pregnant — and despite the massive load of troubles that clearly lay in wait to pounce upon this tiny boy as he made his way in the world, despite all of that, there was, in Tommy Kilgore’s eyes, a rising joy, a bright gleam.
That baby who eventually is named Casey Kreiger does not appear very often in The Cold Way Home.
Very little of the novel’s action has anything to do with the infant who struggles for life in a clinic that serves babies — many babies — born to drug-addicted mothers and suffering from addictions passed along by the mothers.
The novel’s action centers around the two murders, one in 1959 and one in present-day Acker’s Gap, and around horrid treatment and experiments on troubled women.
Two murders that turn out not to have been necessary. Two victims who were killed for the wrong reasons.
Julia Keller, who is a friend of mine, writes with verve about the violence and the mystery of the murders. And, as usual, she has a bigger story to tell, a human and humane story about the people of Acker’s Gap and the surrounding area, enduring great pain and disappointment and oppression.
The people of Acker’s Gap are geographically isolated and economically isolated. Yet, in Keller’s hands, they live lives that each of us can relate to. Consider, for instance, this scene in which a terminally ill husband is turning red from coughing. His wife jumps up and hurries to him.
“Come on, now,” she said. She held a tissue under his mouth, letting him clear his throat, catching the phlegm, wiping his chin. Not caring that people were watching. “Settle down, honey.” Brenda wadded up the tissue and tucked it demurely in the pocket of her skirt. Bell remembered doing that for Shirley: helping her deal with the body’s betrayals, small and large. If you loved the person, it wasn’t gross, and it wasn’t a burden. It was what you did.”
Many novels of great literary art will fall short of hitting on the human truths in those few sentences.
Or consider the phone call that Rhonda Lovejoy, the county prosecutor, makes late one evening to Bell Elkins, her predecessor, to talk human being to human being. When Bell answers the phone, all she hears is “a sigh, one freighted with sorrow.” Finally, Rhonda says:
“It’s just — I can’t —” What came next surprised her even more. Rhonda was crying. Softly, discreetly, but she was crying, all the same. “Sometimes it’s just too much. The things that happen around here. I mean, sure, bad things happen everywhere, but it’s like we never get a break. You know?”
Many mystery novels, crime novels, suspense novels will fall far short of expressing the humanity in those few sentences.
The Cold Way Home is a novel that wrestles with the messiness of living, breathing and dying. It pulls no punches about the dark aspects of life — the pain, the failure, the betrayal, the grimness.
But it also has the courage to hope.
Casey Kreiger, the baby born in the toilet bowl to a drug-addicted mother, does not appear very often in The Cold Way Home.
But he is the heart of the novel. His life may ultimately be short; it may be filled with pain. His mother forgets about him as soon as she gets her drugs. But nurses and volunteers care for him with tenderness. They give him love, and he gives them — well, hope.
As Steve Brinksneader realizes when he sees the “rising joy” in Tommy Kilgore’s eyes as he holds the newborn Casey:
This was life, and life is a sacred thing, a holy thing, no matter the grisly circumstances out of which it had arisen. Steve was sure that he and Tommy Kilgore…were feeling the same thing: an awe, a reverence that moved through their bodies in an upward thrust of warmth and hope, like a sunrise in the blood….
It was the child. It was that fragile breathing creature coiled in the dirty porcelain cradle that had changed him, that had changed this parking lot and this town and this night, and such a change must, he thought, in the fullness of time and the mysteries therein, change everything.
Patrick T. Reardon