A HANGING AT CINDER BOTTOM
By Glenn Taylor
The Borough Press/Paperback/371 pages/$28.99/Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5
In the red-light district of a mining boomtown out west, a crowd thirsty for entertainment gathers on a hot, damp day at noon in 1910 to see a man and woman swing from the gallows.
American author Glenn Taylor sells us this postcard of a hanging in the vivid first pages of his novel, but it is a long and elaborate con that the reader must unravel before he can read what is written on the back of that card.
The charming couple facing the gallows are card shark and conman Abe Baach and his lover Goldie Toothman, the beautiful madam of the town's brothel.
The scene of their hanging knots together the beginning and the end of this yarn, which moves in a loop through their history with the sordid, ruthless town of Keystone, slowly tightening like a noose around what the reader knows until the time comes for the drop.
The novel, set in the bleak, turn-of-the-century hills of Taylor's native West Virginia, blends neo-Western grit with the slick comic timing of an old-fashioned hustle.
Abe, the middle son of the town's Jewish bartender, is a prodigy at the poker table and a gifted grifter, but is forced to skip town when he inadvertently makes enemies of the wealthy, malevolent men who hold Keystone in their grip.
In doing so, he abandons his family and teenage sweetheart Goldie, a fearless femme fatale who eventually comes to helm the whorehouse she grew up in.
It is only the death of his older brother that draws Abe back to Keystone after many years, setting in motion a complex scheme to avenge his family's loss and rid the town of its corrupt masters.
Taylor's dizzying cast of fast-talking, sharp-shooting characters are a delight to hear, thanks largely to his grasp of brash West Virginian slang and striking metaphors.
An adulterous woman claims she can "suck the silver off a dime". Goldie, watching the crowd assembled for her hanging, thinks there are so many people that they form "a wide gray skin on the land."
The tight plot scatters its clues artfully throughout as the tiniest details - one character's phobia of snakes, for instance, or the recurrent eating of pickled eggs - come into significant play later on in a way that will reward a second reading.
The novel's main failing is that it sets up an impressive opening act that is hard to follow. The denouement has the air of deus ex machina about it, and - at the risk of revealing spoilers - balloons somewhat out of proportion.
But although the outcome of this magic trick may underwhelm, a great deal of pleasure remains in observing how Taylor stacks his house of cards and in watching them fall.
If you liked this book, read: The Ballad Of Trenchmouth Taggart by Glenn Taylor (2009, Ecco, US$12.74 or S$17.87, Amazon), his debut novel that follows a West Virginian "one-time inventor, snake handler, cunnilinguist, sniper, woodsman, harmonica man and newspaperman" across the 20th century.