‘The Evening Hour,’’ the bleak, absorbing debut novel from Carter Sickels, is about being stuck - in a job, in a town, in a way of life. Nearly every character is an underdog, and readers can’t help but root for them, even knowing all the while that it is futile.
The book is set in the Appalachian mining town of Dove Creek, W.Va., whose residents are being ravaged by poverty and drugs while the coal-mining industry that once sustained the community now threatens to consume it. It’s a story that’s been told before, but larger themes of religion and family breathe new life into a plot that could easily have been a cliche.
Perhaps Sickels’s biggest achievement here involves making his main character, Cole Freeman - a 27-year-old nursing home aide who supplements his paycheck by stealing valuables from the facility’s patients, and dealing prescription drugs on the side - not only sympathetic, but actually likable. For Cole, who grew up in the community and is now trying to protect his grandmother from getting scammed into selling her land, the mining industry is completely, literally ingrained into his identity. Though his surname is a cruel, unremarked-upon irony unto itself, even Cole is conscious of the fact that his absent mother “named him for the black gold in these mountains that caused everyone so much grief.’’
Even as the strict sense of faith that his grandfather, a preacher, instilled in him from an early age hangs over him, Cole throws himself into his work (both legal and illicit) to emotionally detach himself and silence any murmurings of guilt that might arise about the addictions he enables in his customers. As he goes from house to house, buying prescription drugs from people who actually need them so he can resell them at higher prices to addicts, we learn that “Cole believed that he would be able to detect any signs of suffering [in the patients]. . . . But it was better not to ask. It was better not to look too closely, or to think about it for too long.’’ But of course, their greatest suffering, like Cole’s, is not outwardly visible.
A major theme of “The Evening Hour’’ emerges as Cole struggles with trying to leave his past behind, a feat made all the more difficult by the return of someone from his childhood, Terry Rose, now a meth dealer, and (minor spoiler alert) his mother. Sickels manages to depict the region and its inhabitants vividly, but without condescension. An understated revelation about Cole and Terry Rose’s friendship near the end of the book feels slightly forced, but doesn’t detract from the novel as a whole.
The novel’s central irony is that all of the characters, whether they are law-abiding or drug-addicted, able-bodied or living in a nursing home, face equally confining conditions and are similarly helpless to change their situations. Cole and others involved in the drug trade are constantly “thinking about’’ getting out of the game, but nothing ever comes of it. His peers harbor big dreams of leaving Dove Creek and moving to a big city, but are as trapped in the town as they would be in quicksand.
As a backdrop to Cole’s story, Sickels weaves in subtle commentary on the political hot-button issue of mountaintop removal. He also incorporates the timely Wall Street vs. Main Street disconnect, through the residents’ justified mistrust and visceral hatred of unsympathetic coal-mining executives, who pocket billions while the townspeople literally perish. At a time when it’s easy for outsiders who are living comfortably to speak in terms of optimism and hope, “The Evening Hour’’ doesn’t shy away from the harsh truth that, for some, there simply isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel.Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at email@example.com.