Dale Neal staggers a mountain family in “Half-Life”
by Rob Neufeld
Landrum has brought with him a Japanese buyer who knows all about that theme. His parents had been shuttled into a U.S. detention camp during World War II.
“The Half-Life of Home” encompasses many examples of loss. The title refers in part to the high radon count Landrum says he’s detected around the Wilder homestead, where Royce’s elderly mother still roosts.
For Royce and his kin, the bedrock of their lives is degrading at an astronomically higher rate than uranium.
“Standing your ground is hard when you can’t trust what’s underfoot,” the novel begins.
“Part of the emphasis of the book came from my background as a reporter,” Neal said in a recent interview. “I remember in the ‘80’s, there was a proposal by the Federal government for a nuclear waste repository (in) Sandy Mush.”
Neal, then an environmental news and county government reporter, and now Business/Entrepreneurship Reporter, had covered the hearings.
The government spokespeople had professed, Neal relates: “We could just close off all of Sandy Mush and bury nuclear waste there for half a million years.”
“ I remember,” he continues, “someone standing up during one of those hearings and saying, ‘The mountains have always been full of forced migrations—from the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears to the people run off their land for the TVA lakes; and this would be yet another exile.’…That always struck me, and I wanted to explore that in a novel.”
Neal suggests that fiction and journalism are closer than what one would think, especially with “New Journalism’s” penchant for dialogue. But fiction allows a writer to get inside people’s heads, and therefore seem realer, he said.
“The Half-Life” gets into more than a dozen heads, and employs a rich range of voices, including one guy—Kyle—who talks to himself.
Kyle first shows up poaching a TV set that Royce’s wife, Eva, made Royce put out on the curb after it failed to sell at a clean-out-the-past tag sale.
“Eyes closed, Kyle could tell the neighborhood and its potential by aroma alone,” Neal writes. “Lift a lid in Altamont and out wafted the smell of Scotch bottles, yogurt gone bad, espresso grounds, the perfumed strips in women’s finer magazines.”
In Chapter 5, Kyle takes the TV to a junk dealer named Hump Humphries at the Dreamland flea market. (Remember that bazaar? The novel is set in 1992 on a Watauga County-like farm and an Asheville-like city.)
In Chapter 11— one of the book’s longest at nine pages—Kyle leads Hump and his poorly tended son to Kyle’s camp for some roasted squirrel and a look at Kyle’s other trash-picked wares. Outrageously pathetic mishaps ensue; Hump is left behind; and Kyle keeps going, to re-emerge in Chapter 17, waking up under a bridge.
Points of view alternate in Neal’s chronologically linked narrative. The Kyle chapters reveal Neal’s interest in society’s unfortunates.
“When I came to Asheville I noticed more homeless people than I had living in Winston-Salem (where he grew up and went to college),” Neal said.
“I’ve often been fascinated by these people who live in the hobo camps and how they are shunned by the rest of the community, though they are part of our community.” Good fiction is often about underdogs, he noted, though Southern fiction tends to fall too much into the camp of “K-Mart realism.”
“I think what’s much harder,” he said, “is to portray a middle class family, like Royce and Eva’s.”
Royce’s family’s place at the center of the Half-Life universe is one of the novel’s beauties. There’s a perfect balance within its structure: the middle-class unit under great pressure at the center; the Appalachian past tugging, with its history of displacement, poverty, and folkloric horror; the Appalachian present pushing, with real estate imperatives; and the no-borders world of current media drawing Royce’s 16-year-old son, Dean, into its disaffection.
Characters fill out a mythological cast, yet stand out as true individuals.
Dallas Rominger, Royce’s uncle, straddles the different worlds. As a young man, he’d worked with Royce’s father, Jake, building a dam in Fontana, from which another important character, Wanda McRae, had been exiled by flooding. In present time, Dallas’ late brother-in-law has made him, rather than Royce, executor of his estate.
Dallas plagues and pleases Royce as much as a problematic family member can.
As a boy, Royce had shuddered at Dallas’ tales of the Snakebit Girl, who kept her bite secret, and “swelled with poisoned pride”; the Failed Farmer, who sold his horse, but had a use for the halter; of the Witch Woman and the Shadow Man.
The tales follow Royce through his life, so that when he stays over at his mother’s house in the wake of local burglaries, he gets creeped out by the door that leads to his father’s secret booze cellar. Opening it, he finds “nothing inside but the hulking shape of the furnace, no Shadow Man in sight, but the trap door that led to the underworld, the realm of radon.”
Other shadows pursue him. Eva calls to say, “Sometimes I wonder if you and I are doing all right.”
Dallas arrives, torments Royce with insinuations that Royce is a mama’s boy; and, then when Royce gets serious, that he’s like his father, can’t take a joke. When talk gets around to the burglar on the prowl, and to Jake’s shotgun, which Royce held onto all night, Dallas restores equilibrium with the comment that Jake hadn’t been able to “hit the broadside of a barn and that’s standing inside the barn.”
“The Half-Life of Home is marvelously supple.
Neal, son of a mill town family on his father’s side and a mountain farm family on his mother’s, did not recognize his calling as a writer until his mother handed him a copy of “Look Homeward, Angel” when he was 16. Thus, the novel’s adoption of Wolfe’s name for fictionalized Asheville, Altamont.
In 1985, Neal entered Warren Wilson College MFA program for writers. One of his teachers, novelist Alan Gurganus, told him, “You don’t have childhood prodigies as novelists…Novelists get started at age 40.” Hence, Neal says, “I’m still a teenager as a novelist.”
Six months after graduating from the program, he completed his first draft of “Half-Life.” He found an agent for it, but it didn’t sell. He wrote and published a different novel, “Cow across America” (which won the Novello Prize), and then returned to his first book.
“About ten years ago, I had an epiphany, hiking the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail,” Neal recalled. “It occurred to me what I needed to do with that novel.”
Royce came across as too adolescent upon his rereading. “He’s acting like an adolescent, he needs a teenage son,” Neal realized. “That changed the whole dynamic of the book, which came alive for me again.”
In the book’s rewrite, the Kyle passages stayed pretty much the same; and the theme—how people acknowledge and move on from loss—stayed strong. So strong, that we as readers have to embrace that state of mind also. Though Neal will continue to use the local setting in his fiction, the characters of “Half-Life” have seen their last day in print.
At the stopping point in their trajectories, Royce matures; Eva has a sense of a new calling; Dean is an open road. Kyle persists.
The Half-Life of Home by Dale Neal (Casperian Books trade paper, 237 pages)
Dale Neal presents his novel, “The Half-Life of Home” at the following times and places: