Coal Runby Tawni O' Dell
With her eagerly awaited second novel, Coal Run, O'Dell takes us back to the coal mining/i>/i>
At once riveting and heartbreaking, Back Roads, with its pitch-perfect characters, captured the maddening confusion of adolescence and announced the arrival of a formidable talent in Tawni O'Dell, a writer who finds the humor and humanity in the bleakest states.
With her eagerly awaited second novel, Coal Run, O'Dell takes us back to the coal mining country of western Pennsylvania, the territory she renders with such striking authenticity. Ivan Zoschenko, the local deputy and erstwhile football legend, “The Great Ivan Z,” sidelined years ago by a knee injury, spends a week seemingly preparing for an old teammate's imminent release from prison. In doing so, Ivan introduces a rich cast of charactershis unexpectedly wise and comic former beauty queen sister, his former idol Val Claypool, and the young woman whose life he changed forever. And during the events of this week, Ivan confronts his demons and reveals himself to be a man whose conscience is burdened by a long-held and shocking secret that must be reckoned with.
Driven by the same raw energy, humor, suspense, and compassion for a place and a way of life that made O'Dell's first novel so unforgettable, Coal Run is an uncompromising and absorbing novel that advances on, even transcends, the incredible promise of Back Roads.
Author Biography: Tawni O'Dell was born and raised in the Allegheny mountains of western Pennsylvania.
- Penguin Group (USA)
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 9.38(h) x 1.25(d)
Read an Excerpt
I FINISH MY BEER, CRUSH THE CAN OUT OF HABIT, AND TOSS IT onto the floor of my truck, where it hits the other cans with a small clang. From where I’m parked, a sparkling stream of piss seems to be coming directly from the filthy blue roof of a yellow, pink-shuttered plastic playhouse, as if the structure itself is filled with liquid and has suddenly sprung a precise and artful leak.
I keep a watch on it as I take another bite of my ham-salad sandwich from the Valley Dairy and reach over to the glove compartment where I keep Vicodin and my revolver. I take out the pills and a folded piece of paper. An old high-school football team photo that Art, the owner of Brownie’s bar, took down from his wall of fame next to the men’s room and gave to me and a road map fall out, along with a can of shaving cream and a folder filled with car accident reports.
The piece of paper is a fax from the state parole board. I open it and flatten it out on the seat beside me.
Reese Raynor’s grainy, black-and-white face stares up at me with the stale eyes of someone who thinks he’s always being told something he already knows. His teeth are clamped shut, his top lip drawn back in a smirking snarl that I would probably find cartoonish in its attempt to intimidate if I didn’t know him personally.
He has changed amazingly little during eighteen years in prison. Except for a paunchiness around his jowls and the loss of some of his hair, he could be the same kid I went to school with.
Beneath his mug shot is the standard information on the parolee, his crime, his sentence. The only item I care about is the release date and time: Tuesday, March 12, 8:00 A.M. Today is Sunday. It’s 1:16 P.M., and I’m late picking up Jolene to go to Zo Craig’s funeral.
Next I glance at our old team photo in a needless exercise of confirmation: 1980 Centresburg Flames. AA District Champions. One game shy of a state title. Myself in the front row: I. Zoschenko, cocaptain. Reese in the back row, on the far end, with his stare like two grimy nickels. Beside him his twin brother, Jess, the other cocaptain, his eyes glazed with the determined numbness of someone forced to share a bus seat with a ticking bomb.
A few weeks after the photo was taken, Reese was kicked off the team. Most of the guys couldn’t believe he lasted as long as he did. He rarely attended practice. He never opened a playbook. He stalked off in disgust each time Coach Deets wheeled the blackboard into the locker room. For Reese every defensive play began and ended with the simple wisdom “A crippled man cannot score.”
But Deets let all that slide. He would’ve let Genghis Khan play for us if he could block, and Reese could block. He had no finesse or speed, and a very limited understanding of the rules and objectives of the game, but no one could get past him.
What finally made Deets give him the boot was his performance off the field. The day after a game—even the games we won—members of the opposing team would find the headlights on their trucks bashed in, or all the windows on their houses blackened with dog shit, or a younger sister deposited on the front yard, drunk and deflowered.
Deets would have tolerated that, too, but the other teams had a problem with it.
I put the photo back in the glove compartment and unfold my deputy’s map: a highly detailed blowup of the county. I’ve traced what I think will be Reese’s path, highlighting all the bars along the way and making a looping detour near Altoona to accommodate a trip to The Tail Pipe, a favored strip joint in the area.
I’m assuming he’ll head to Jess’s house. He doesn’t get along with his parents, and the rest of his family in the area is made up of sisters who are married to men who won’t let him come near their homes. He and Jess were the oldest and the only boys in Chimp Raynor’s tribe of pale, lip- licking girls with dark stares like cloaks who never spoke unless spoken to and never walked down the middle of a hallway. The two brothers were the meat of the family; the girls were the drippings.
My job has brought me to the home of one of the sisters. She’s married with kids now. Her mother is on the premises as well, the ominous incubator of Jess and Reese. She’s hiding in the gunshot-riddled Buick in the driveway.
I get out of my truck and close the door softly, trying to be quiet, and take a few careful steps up the driveway, but my boots crunch over the windshield glass sprayed everywhere. As the pisser comes into view, he turns to look at me but keeps himself aimed in the same direction, continuing to make an impressive arc over his wife’s peacock green gazing ball and her lawn goose prematurely dressed for Easter in a bunny costume they’re already selling out at the mall.
I see his gun leaning against the playhouse where he put it while his hands are otherwise occupied. A Winchester twelve-gauge. Chuck, our dispatcher, didn’t say anything about its being a shotgun, but his wife probably didn’t think to specify when she called. I reach into my pocket for a roll of Certs and pop one in my mouth to mask the scent of beer.
The man’s face doesn’t register any definable emotion or even recognition upon seeing me, but he raises a hand in greeting.
The gesture causes him to lurch slightly to one side as he’s drying up to a trickle, and the goose and ball get spattered. I glance toward the front window of the house and see Bethany Raynor, now Bethany Blystone, and her two little girls peering through the curtains. She turns livid when she sees her goose get hit.
I take a few more steps toward him, passing by the car. Inside, his mother-in-law is hunkered down as far as she can go on the floor. There are fragments of glass in her teased, gray hair that look almost decorative when she cranes her neck up toward me out of the shadows and a plank of daylight falls across her face. The seat above her has been ripped open by the shotgun blasts.
“Are you all right?” I ask her.
She’s trembling, but she’s remarkably calm considering the circumstances. Forty-five years of marriage to Chimp have probably taught her to dole out hysteria sparingly. She manages to nod, then whispers to me, “Why are you all dressed up?”
She works at the Kwik-Fill on the north side of Centresburg where I buy my gas, and she always sees me in a deputy’s shirt.
“Funeral,” I whisper back.
“Zo Craig’s?” she asks.
“I saw her obituary in the paper,” she goes on. “It was almost as big as Elizabeth Taylor’s.”
“I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Taylor is still alive.”
“Oh, you know who I mean. The other one.”
I look in Rick’s direction again. He has a slight sway to him now.
“Right,” I say. “I loved that movie she did. You know the one.”
She nods again.
“Jess did Zo’s mowing. Did you know that? She has a real nice John Deere tractor. He loves that tractor.”
“I better go talk to Rick,” I tell her. “You stay put.”
I take a deep breath and start walking toward him. There’s a strong smell of wet dirt beneath the acrid carbide smell still lingering around his gun and the stench of alcohol wafting off him. I’m not close enough to smell yet, but I swear I can see it hanging around him the way heat in the summertime makes the air ripple.
The dirt smell makes me think about Zo’s impending funeral and the freshly dug plot that’s waiting for her in the J&P cemetery next to her long-dead husband, one of the ninety-seven men who died in Gertie.
“How ya doing, Rick?” I call out amiably.
He fixes a glassy stare on me.
I move closer but still keep a fair distance away from him so I don’t panic him. I have two objectives at this point: get hold of the shotgun and save the lawn ornaments from any future urination.
I motion at him to move toward me.
“Why don’t you bring it over here, Rick? Your kids play around there, don’t they?”
He’s staring at me trying to place me, not in the present but in the past where most of us like to keep each other now that we’ve seen the future.
He finally drops his gaze and looks forlornly at the puddle he created next to an overturned doll stroller with a stuffed animal strapped inside it.
With his back toward me, I move quickly to the playhouse and pick up the shotgun.
He doesn’t turn around. He raises his head and stares at the land behind his house beyond his yard.
The morning rain has stopped, and the sun is trying to make its presence known by shining dimly behind the wall of gray clouds that meets the rim of lavender-smudged hills with the finality of a lid. The weather’s been pretty good lately. It’s a shame it couldn’t have been a little drier today. I know that wherever Zo’s practical soul is right now, it will be upset over the thought of all the good shoes that are going to get caked with mud and the time spent cleaning them afterward.
“Ivan? Ivan Z?” Rick asks unsteadily, turning around to face me.
“Yeah, Rick. It’s me.”
A smile ticks briefly at the corners of his mouth like a small spasm.
“I heard you was back, but I didn’t really believe it. Working for Jack, huh? How’s it going?”
“Okay. How’s it going with you?”
We both glance at his house, where the two little girls are still pressed against the window, but Bethany has disappeared. Their stares dart back and forth between their dad and me and the car with the shattered windshield where their grandmother is hiding. It occurs to me that they might not know if she’s living or dead.
“They’re closing Lorelei,” Rick announces.
He stands in the middle of the yard and somehow manages to look uncomfortably stiff even though everything about him, from his dick hanging out of his jeans to his arms hanging at his sides to the drunken slackness of his unshaven cheeks, is limp.
“So I heard.”
“I only got called back nine months ago. I was out of work for almost a year before that.”
I hear the front door open and see Bethany, out of the corner of my eye, head for the car. She opens the door, and a sob catches in her throat. Her mother stumbles out, and they wrap their arms around each other. Rick watches them.
“There’s only Marvella left now,” he says, “and it’s all longwall.”
He shakes his head.
“I don’t want to do it again. I can’t do it again. Being unemployed.”
The two women are crying. He notices and points accusingly at them.
“My mother-in-law has a steady job. She’s been working at that goddamned Kwik-Fill since the beginning of time. She used to sell Slim Jims to Ben Fucking Franklin.”
We watch the women help each other into the house. Bethany shoots him another scathing look, this time directed at his exposed manhood.
“And then there’s Chimp. Worst miner ever lived. And he ends up working longer than anybody. Gets full retirement. Now he’s even collecting black-lung benefits when nobody else can get them, and he doesn’t even have it. You know he doesn’t have it. He’s got that shit you get from smoking all the time. What’s it called? Empha-seeming?”
“Yeah. That’s it. I swear, if he fell into a pile of shit, he’d come up with a golden turd in his mouth.”
I think back to high school and the few times I visited Jess at home. He and his family lived in a peeling, sagging shell of a farmhouse with a pack of spittle-flinging dogs roaming in and out of the propped-open front door and had a yard covered with so much junk it looked like the house had vomited its contents.
If there were such things as golden turds, Chimp obviously didn’t know what to do with them once he found them.
“Is that why you tried to kill your mother-in-law?” I ask him, getting back to the topic at hand. “Career envy?”
“I didn’t try and kill her,” he says.
He takes a few wobbling steps toward me, then stops suddenly like the ground has been yanked away.
“I was shooting at the car,” he says once he finds his balance again. “I didn’t want her to leave. That’s all. I knew she was going to drive straight back to her house and call every goddamned old lady in the tristate area and tell them what a loser I am. What a goddamned fucking loser I am!” He screams it to the heavens.
The effort makes his knees buckle, and he drops onto the muddy grass. Once he hits, he starts crying. I don’t know if it’s out of misery or because he got caught in his zipper. He puts himself back in his pants and brings his hands up to cover his face, knocking off his company ball cap with J&P COAL stitched in frayed, faded gold across the front. Losing his hat makes him cry harder.
I squat down in front of him, and my bad knee sings out in pain. It’s been almost twenty years and six operations since my accident. I can walk pretty well, but I will never again be able to squat; however, something in my mind and body won’t allow this fact to register, and I’m still constantly attempting it the same way my mother continues to make mincemeat pies for Christmas every year, even though my dad was the only one in our family who liked them.
I put my hands on Rick’s shoulders. He stops sobbing for a moment, and understanding briefly skates across his dull gaze.
“You gonna arrest me?” he asks.
“I’m going to take your gun for a while. Do you have any more in the house?”
“I’m going to take those, too.”
I brace his shotgun against the ground and use it as a crutch to help me get back to a standing position.
“Why don’t you just stay here for a minute?” I instruct him, needlessly.
He’s already fallen over, sprawled out on his stomach, with his eyes closed, mumbling to himself. I head for the house and knock on the front door.
Bethany answers. She’s not happy to see me even though she’s the one who called and asked me to come here.
She stares at me, courteously defiant. She’s put on about sixty pounds of flesh and attitude since high school.
I try picturing her young self without the extra weight, with her hair feathered like Farrah’s, wearing Chic jeans instead of the orange stretch pants she’s wearing now, worn shiny at the knees, along with a voluminous thigh-length sweatshirt created by retailers for the sole purpose of concealing various types of female physical hell.
“How’s your mother?” I ask.
“She’s fine. A little shaken up is all. She’s lying down.”
“Your husband says he wasn’t trying to kill her. He was trying to prevent her from leaving.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I told her to just sit down and let him cool off, but she had a hair appointment. Now she’s missed it anyway.”
Behind her is a room that belongs to a woman who doesn’t put housekeeping high on her list of things to do. Toys, laundry, stacks of unopened mail, dirty dishes, and miscellaneous fragments of day-to-day life surround the two little girls sitting in a patch of cleared carpet watching TV and eating Mootown Snackers. They dip their pretzel sticks into their portions of cheese spread at the exact same moment and bring them hypnotically to their mouths.
“Has he ever done anything like this before?” I ask her.
“Violent outbursts of any kind? Toward you? Toward the children?”
“He throws things at the TV sometimes, but he don’t hit us.”
“Does he drink a lot?”
“Not more than anybody else.”
Her stare doesn’t waver.
“Are you going to arrest him?” she asks me.
“Do you want me to?”
“That’s a strange question.”
“I’m off duty, and I have a headache,” I explain.
“You want an aspirin?”
She drops her eyes away from mine for the first time and looks down at my jeans and mud- caked Caterpillar work boots, then takes in my black dress shirt, black sport jacket, and the tie I borrowed from Dr. Ed that he pulled out of a filing-cabinet drawer and tossed to me while telling me not to worry about the stain. It wasn’t blood, it was gravy, and no one would notice it because it blends in well with the pattern of migrating ducks.
“Why didn’t they send an on-duty deputy?” she asks suspiciously.
“I was easier to find. Look, if your mother wants to press charges, I’ll be happy to take him back to town with me.”
“He did commit a crime, didn’t he?”
“Well, yes. Shooting at a person with a twelve-gauge shotgun is always considered a crime in the state of Pennsylvania, even if the person shot at is the perpetrator’s mother-in-law. Unless of course it’s mother-in-law season,” I add, smiling.
She doesn’t smile back.
“Okay,” I try another tack. “Here’s what will happen if I arrest him: I’ll take him to jail. He’ll stay there until he’s arraigned, and then you’re going to have to drive into town and post bond and give him a ride back home. Even if your mother doesn’t want to press charges, the state will. You won’t have to testify because you’re his wife, but your mother will. She’ll have to take time off work to do it. She could end up having to take off several days, maybe even a week, without pay. If you retain your own attorney, you’re looking at thousands of dollars. At the very least, you’re going to end up paying a considerable fine and court costs. He might get jail time, which will go on his permanent record and make it difficult for him to find future employment once he’s released.”
“We can’t afford that,” she answers.
“How about for now I’ll just take the guns? He said he has a couple rifles.”
She doesn’t hesitate. She leaves the room immediately, wanting to get this all over with. On her way past the girls, she nudges one in the kidneys with her foot and tells her to go load the dishwasher.
She returns quickly, carrying two rifles: another Winchester and a Remington .30-06, the same make and model Val used to hunt with.
I take the Remington and raise it to shoulder height like I always do when I’m around one. This one has a nice high-powered scope. I look into it, aiming through the front window at Rick, passed out in a muddy yard next to a goose dressed like a rabbit.
I start aiming at things in the house. Pictures on the walls. Empty beer cans on the coffee table. I come to a stationary exercise bike in a corner draped with towels and T-shirts and Christmas twinkle lights.
Bethany Blystone is staring at me with embarrassed rage. I slowly lower the gun and clear my throat.
“You used to be a Raynor, didn’t you?”
She walks to the front door. I sense I’m supposed to follow. She holds open the door.
“I’m still a Raynor. That don’t change just because my name did.”
“Are you aware that Reese is being released on Tuesday?”
She says nothing.
“Have you had any contact with him recently?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“I’d like to keep an eye on him so I can help out if he encounters any difficulties making the transition to life outside prison.”
“You mean you want to harass him?”
“Something like that.”
I step outside, and she stands in the doorway staring at me uncertainly. A shadow of her former skinny, frightened self passes over her, the self that used to live in the same house with Reese.
“He’ll go to Jess,” she announces, and shuts the door on me.
Back at my truck, I unlock my footlocker and put Rick’s guns inside with a half dozen others.
I grab a blanket and go check on him a final time. He’s unconscious, but he’s on his stomach so he won’t choke to death if he throws up. I cover him. I don’t know how long he’ll be out here.
The little girl who was nudged in the kidneys comes walking over. She’s not wearing a coat or shoes. She has a football with her and a Sharpie permanent marker in her hand.
“He’s fine,” I assure her.
She doesn’t even glance at him.
“You should go in the house before you catch cold,” I tell her.
She holds out the ball and marker to me.
“Mom wants to know if you’d give us your autograph. She says it would mean a lot to Dad.”
The request is delivered as two separate statements. There’s no asking involved.
I take the ball from her and take the lid off the marker.
“You got any stickers?” she asks me.
“Stickers,” she repeats. “Dr. Ed always brings stickers.”
“Does Dr. Ed come here a lot?” I ask.
“When Daddy loses his job, he gives us our shots here instead of us going there. I don’t know why.”
I know why, but I don’t explain to her that when Daddy loses his job, he also loses his benefits. Dr. Ed won’t accept lack of an insurance card or any other reason people give him for not bringing their kids in for their vaccinations. If they won’t come to him, he goes to them.
I finish signing the ball and hand it to the girl. She puts it up against her face. At first I think she does it so she can read it, but it’s because she wants to smell the ink.
I search my pockets for something to give her. I wish I had something pretty, but all I come up with is the half-eaten roll of Certs and the rabbit’s foot Val made for me before he left for Vietnam. I give her the mints.
She takes them and gives me a shrug. There’s gratitude in the jerk of her shoulders. It’s enough. I know that this girl could never say thanks. It would imply that I had done something for her.
I get back in my truck and watch her trudge over to the doll stroller. I’m going to wait until she’s safely back inside the house, even though I’m not sure exactly how safe that is.
In the meantime I finish eating my sandwich while reading the bumper stickers people and local businesses have given me over the past eight months since I’ve been back that I have plastered on my dashboard: OLD HUNTERS NEVER MISS, THEY JUST LOSE THEIR BANG. MCCREADY SEPTIC SYSTEMS: THIS JOB SUCKS. MY WIFE, YES. MY DOG, MAYBE. MY GUN, NEVER. WELDERS HAVE THE HOTTEST RODS. PUFF N’ SNUFF FOR ALL YOUR TOBACCO NEEDS. DIAL 911: MAKE A COP COME.
One is from the Salt Lick Motel. The word “Salt” has been worn away completely. In my boredom I’ve peeled away some of the other letters. It now reads LICK M— —E—. My six-year-old nephew, Eb, gets a real kick out of this.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I just finished this book and once again was so sad to let go of the characters. It's ten to midnight and I am desperate for another O'Dell novel. I just found her latest and only novel of hers I have yet to read. It's downloading as I type. Coal Run and Backroads were more intense than Sister Mine. I'm starting "Fiery Beasts" tonight. You won't be let down with this author. Happy reading!
Coal Run was a well paced, quick read. Honest portrayal of coal mining communities and what happens when disaster strikes and/or the jobs run out. Strong supporting characters through out the novel... favorites were Dr. Ed and Val. A bit of an unfair and inaccurate description of Florida, per this native Floridian... I can't see our tourism board contacting the author for a glowing recommendation.
I read the first book,back roads and loved it.Now i have read coal run and love this one too. Tawni O'Dell is a great story teller and i cant wait to read her next book.
I've passed this book on to a lot of people. The author is a master at description. You really feel like you've stepped into a small town when you read this book. I recommend Coal Run to anyone looking to pick up a book he won't be able to put down.
This is a beautiful book. The author does such a wonderful job the way she intertwines the lives of her characters throughout the book. The story is compelling and I couldn't put it down because I HAD TO KNOW what was going to happen. The situations were very believable and the author doesn't always take the easy way out. I enjoyed the author's first book, but I loved this one!
Tawni O'Dell tunnels deep into her characters so that they seem to be walking right off the pages. The terrain here, as in her superlative 'Back Roads', is Pennsylvania--and it's country that's as alive as her characters. Ivan Zoschenko comes home around the same time a former teammate is about to be released from prison. Memories unravel, secrets come to light, people confront each other--and themselves. The book is flatout brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
If there were a 4 1/2 star rating I would have gone with that instead of just a 4- this is a great read! Coal Run is the kind of book I regret finishing because I feel a sense of missing the characters as soon as the book is closed.
B & N will you please delete these stupid kits and their dumb clans and their idiot stories from this review page???
I was better then the first one it still seems a little rushed
It was a little short and seemed you didnt take your time. I liked the "youngun"part though. I cant wait to see what happens next! Your story is getting interesting.
" I did it I caught the mouse " said Coalpaw excitedley . " Shh , " mewed his mentor " , or youll scare all the prey to Riverclan and back . " Sorry " he said . " Great catch Coalpaw " said Lillypaw . " Thanks " mewed Coalpaw . After Coalpaw caught the mouse they went back to camp . " Flowerpelt I caught my first piece of prey " Coalpaw said to his mother . " Great job honey now go giv it to Mossclaw " she said . Mossclaw had been a brave warrior and helped overthrow their evil former leader Blackwing who was banished from the clans . Mossclaw had became an elder after that . " Heres a mouse l caught Mossclaw " said Coalpaw . " Well thank u " mewed Mossclaw . " Could u change my bedding for me youngun " Mossclaw said . " Ok " he said . Coalpaw went to lake and gathered some moss when he smelled something like squirrel blood . He ran to the scent and scented a Windclan cat on the Thunderclan side of the border . A Windclan cat has killed a squirrel on Thunderclan territory . He raced back to camp to tell Owlstar . " Owlstar Windclan killed Thunderclan prey on our territory " !! " What !!" . " Windclan killed Thunderclan prey in Thunderclan territory . Where did u find this ? " the brown she-cat said . " Near the lake " said Coalpaw . ~ End of chapter two .