High Kill by Diane Ryan
Brilliant. Riveting. Disturbing. Horrifying. Hair-Raising.
Not since Joyce Carol Oates have I love/hated a story so much.
This novel is one I'd normally pass over based on the description: dead bodies--someone's beloved child gone missing--are found rotting in blue barrels in Appalachia. But I couldn't resist the hook of real-life animal rescue and a story well-told. And is it ever well-told! I've read this book at least three times now, and it never gets old, because the prose is that good. The dialogue is witty and believable. The tricky timeline is deftly handled.
Another reason this novel is a must-read: Steemit!
The author aka @rhondak writes,
I must thank the editorial and executive staff of Steemhouse Publishing. What you all came together to make happen is nothing short of miraculous. I predict you’ll leave an enduring legacy not only on the Steem blockchain but for mainstream publishing as well.
Back to the book itself:
Taylor Beckett, a broadcast journalist assigned to the story of bodies in barrels, is not up for a trip to "hillbilly" country. Her first thought on having to cover this news:
three dead bodies in Southwest Virginia, all shoved in blue poly drums, sealed with silicone, and dumped in the woods. All male, late teens or early twenties. Somebody’s moonshine gig gone bad, probably. Or dope. Always dope in that part of the state.
Taylor's Point of View alternates with the POV of a local boy, Eric, and her backstory in Chicago flickers in and out of her present in Virginia. In addition, we get song lyrics from Erik the Chicago musician. Lines like this:
Well, I’m a boy who loved a girl
Who loved herself and loved the world
Who loved his love but didn’t love him back.
Sound confusing? Trust me: you'll fall right into this stream and get carried along on the current, wincing and cringing at what you'll see along the way, but see it, you must.
In chapter one, teenage Eric is forced into coon hunting with family and friends, and he barely manages to escape having to prove his manhood by shooting a raccoon. Eric doesn't like to kill things. He wants to save them. Become a veterinarian. A pipe dream, in his world. Then his own dog leads him to a body in a barrel... on the same ill-fated night that one of the group's hunting dogs, a one-year-old who fails to do her job, has been discarded by her human. I cannot unsee the cruelty of just the scolding Rosie gets, but it gets worse. Rosie is nothing if not lovable. And memorable. Eric tries to intervene, but "best let it be," his grandpa advises. Don't meddle with someone else's dog, even if he abuses it or risks its life.
source: Appalachian Coon Hunters Inc.
"It's only fiction," my husband
has told me for years, but, but, it's never "only fiction." The truth is all too often told in the guise of fiction. Different names, different dates and details, but same sad story happening in our world, in our own backyard, but most people shrug, turn a blind eye: "That's the way the world is."
Sad to say, the author confirms real-life events inspired this novel:
Those who are oblivious to the social decay in our region may be appalled by my portrayal of modern Appalachian culture. Very few plot points in this novel are pure fabrication.... behind every twist and turn in this story is truth, none more poignant and heart-wrenching than my accounts of vicious animal abuse at the hands of county employees. A former animal control officer reviewed the scene in which Eric Blevins recalls an incident at a local shelter. She said it was so accurate based on her personal experiences that she could barely stand to read it.
Dang. I was afraid of that.
Southern voice at its most accurate is what I first notice and appreciate about this story. All winter, I saw endless advertisements for another author making that claim, but I couldn't get past the opening chapters of his series, in which a talking dog and his human speak in less-than-convincing dialect. So, I checked "High Kill"'s Author Bio: "Diane Ryan is Southern born and raised. Over the years, she has rescued and rehabilitated horses, dogs, and cats....These days, she lives on a mountain in Central Appalachia with a houseful of animals." I have never met this author, but her passion and insight infuse the novel with authenticity. This voice belongs to a Virginian who has personally witnessed the atrocities of local animal shelters (read the disclaimer in the back of the book: some of this stuff is lifted straight out of real life). She captures the mindset of a people who regard animals as things God made for humans to use, but not as creatures--creations--with feelings, not as furry friends who deserve our care and respect.
With spare prose that never holds back, the lifestyle and mindset of these unenlightened Virginians comes across in a novel packed with tension, repressed memories, reminders of profound personal loss, and clues to open up the past that refuses to stay hidden.
Some reviewers complain that it's hard to keep Eric the teenager pressured into a hunting party separate from the Chicago musician also named Erik. I'm horribly challenged with names, but I never had trouble keeping these two separate in my mind as I read. The musician is part of Taylor Beckett's past, and the reader MUST KNOW why he's no longer part of her present, so that alone kept me turning pages. But there's also her co-worker, Charles, who is there for her, putting up with Taylor's attitude, her complaints about the awful people, her self-destructive refusal to confront whatever it is that's eating away at her.
Charles is golden. Taylor doesn't fully appreciate him as a friend at the outset of the story; they're always exchanging barbs and insults, but in good humor. Taylor sees him like this:
Charles Carter had missed his calling as a skip tracer. Or a CIA spook. He always made her nervous—the kind of shit he found about people with a Tor browser and a few clicks of the mouse? No telling what he could dig up about her if he ever thought to look.
Does he dig up any dirt on Taylor? Of course he will! But I'm not giving any clues here.
At the very end, one of the Eric/Erik men (I'm not telling you which one!) hopes Taylor won't break the guy's heart. Taylor has in fact grown softer around the edges, thanks to her time with Eric the younger, and thanks to Charles, but she still has some work to do. Psychologically, she was a train wreck, for good reason (you will not stop reading until you piece the backstory together), and she makes a tremendous character arc here, but she didn't land in Happily Ever After with Prince Charles. She has some more hard hills to climb. But I figure Charles will be there alongside her as she ascends, and Eric will have a bright future - NOT A SPOILER - thanks in part to Taylor.
I have to let you know Eric will be all right in the end, because he suffers so horribly, I'd normally slam the book shut and look for lighter fare. Eric gets as happy a happily ever after as he could. With scars that haven't healed over yet, but we are confident they will. And after reading the book for the third or fourth time yesterday, I realize now that the ending is perfect. I'm reminded of my favorite novel, Ardyth Kennelly's "Good Morning, Young Lady," in that I had to read it so many times before it sank in that this is just right: Less Is More. I wanted more Taylor + Charles but the subtlety and restraint is authentic, pitch-perfect, and waaay better than some cheesy kiss and tell (i.e., showing the reader that these two will get together. --NOT A SPOILER! I swear, these are not spoilers! If anyone disagrees, let's get a book club going NOW!!!!)
I haven't even begun to describe the locals, the bad guys, the violent ones, the dog fights, and Rosie--Rosie!--and all the horrible things that happen to animals and people in this book.
Normally I excerpt passages that I've highlighted via my Kindle, but I'd basically be copy/pasting half the book here if I tried to winnow it down to a few favorites.
Highly recommended - and this from the sister of an Iowa Cold Case - my sister was strangled, stripped naked of jewelry and every last thing, and stuffed into a culvert; months later her body washed out in spring rains and was found by a road grader driver. I do not read thrillers and whodunnits very often. I don't need horror, and I hate-love-hate historical fiction. But this novel held my attention from start to finish, and left me angry and outraged at stuff that goes on in real life.
Crime Scenes from my own life - source
Read at your own peril, but do read
this novel. Painful as it is, we need fiction to show us the truth in ways that numbers and news reports do not.
And the prose is just as beautiful as the events are ugly. No small feat.
NO DISCLAIMER needed: I bought the book after hearing about it at Steemit.
There were some who didn't like this book at all. Some have pointed out flaws in it. I'll concede, this novel does have some flaws, but I almost never read a novel that has none. I'm no fan of the thriller genre, so I had no trouble with a narrative alternating between past and present, drifting into song lyrics, leaving readers wondering what the heck is going on. Hang in there. The shattered pieces come together in the end.
I just wish I hadn't heard that the graphic, lurid, horrific scenes of animal abuse in this novel are based on real events, and that the local corruption is accurately depicted here in the guise of fiction. It's depressing. Demoralizing. And yet.... we go on. Good prevails, here and there.
Charles. That's my final word. Charles!