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Fleece Skaggs has disappeared, along with drug dealer Lawrence Gruel's reefer harvest. Deciding that the best way to discover what happened to his older brother is to take his place as a drug runner for Gruel, James Cole plunges into a dark underworld of drugs, violence, and long hidden family secrets, where discovering what happened to his brother could cost him his life.
A genre-subverting literary mystery told from the alternating viewpoint of different characters, Ghosting is both a simple quest for the truth—what exactly happened to Fleece Skaggs?—and a complex consideration of human frailty.
“ the characters are fully realized—rooted in the land and veined with bad blood—and their motivations are complex and believable. Violent, bloody, and darkly beautiful, this is a fascinating novel depicting the seedy bottom of an America in decline.”—Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“In Ghosting, Kirby Gann has created an utterly compelling ode to the fearsome and contradictory desires of his unforgettable characters. Writing in brilliantly sustained licks of prose, Gann gives us flesh-and-blood human beings who cannot escape what they cannot help wanting. Their fate is true, the ride beautiful and dark.”
—John Burham Schwartz ,author of Reservation Road and Northwest Corner
“With a plot as full of twists and turns as an ancient Greek tragedy, Kirby Gann’s Ghosting is one of the most beautifully worded and superbly crafted novels about the fateful consequences of being caught up in the criminal life that I have ever read.And I’m speaking truth.”
—Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff
“What a richly imagined world Kirby Gann has wrought in Ghosting. A frightful world of drug running and addiction, but beneath that a story of family and the desire for safety and peace. This novel is full of grit and the yearnings of the human heart. Its carefully drawn characters latched onto me and wouldn’t let me go.”
—Lee Martin, author of Break the Skin and The Bright Forever
“Combining grit and poetry, deep feeling and an unsentimental gaze, Kirby Gann has written a novel as intimate as the stifling locale where it’s set and as expansive as the minds and voices of the people ensnared there. Ghosting is dark, funny, unexpected, and populated with characters we immediately recognize even as they avoid cliché.”—Christopher Sorrentino, author of Trance and Sound on Sound
James Cole Prather comes last in line. He cannot keep pace with the healthy legs of his companions; a misshapen knee makes him list to starboard at each step, his excuse for a run an awkward pole-vaulting motion mastered from childhood. He catches up to where his friends still at the field's end, hiding out before the cracked cul-de-sac drive. Their giggles and squally hushes spring from the dark stalks, a tiny crew of the stoned and invulnerable scanning for signs of any human figure, for the infamous caretaker making his rounds, the glint of his shotgun in the meager moonlight.
The spectacular ruin of the St. Jerome seminary looms before them. It's a vast keep: five stories high, the facade as wide as a football field is long, row upon row of shattered mullioned windows gaping sightless over the broken fields. At the summit towers a stone cross; above that, clouds zoom across the moon like river rapids at full rampage.
His companions bolt across the open space and disappear behind a keeling pine. James Cole watches them go as he catches his breath, used to being left behind. He raises his face to the roiling clouds, feels the cold rain mix with the sweat slicking his cheeks. His eyes close at the simple pleasure, and he listens to the swim in his brain and the thousands of sounds that surround: wind on stalks; rain on leaves; a broken shutter attacking its hinges. Each a note sung precisely for him.
By the time he makes it around the pine his friends are gone.
He calls their names, softly; only the wind rises in answer. The basement windows nearest him are securely boarded shut. Above, on the second floor, a single window hangs open not far from the tree's sturdy center, and he envisions the scene he must have missed only a moment before, Spunk and Shady hauling themselves up the weak extended branches without speaking, sneakers grabbing for toe-holds on the brick ledge.
The rain comes down heavier, in gobs. A shiver wrings his body as three cold drops shock his neck beneath the collar. Up the tree he goes, boots scrape-sliding on the slick trunk, clumps of scratchy bark pulling off in his hands. The climb requires more effort than he had expected, but he makes it to the open window and wiggles through headfirst. The wet linoleum floor shocks when it kisses him hard on the forehead.
They've left him here as well; he can feel the absence around him. The dark is such that it swallows the weak beam of his flashlight. Rain sluices noisily in one dark corner, and somewhere there sings a plopping song, an echo as water taps into deeper water, a melody without resolution. The first purl of thunder rolls the length of the sky in a gradual motion that seems to pour far into the distance and then return. And there is a stench—the room smells of piss and rot and wet dog.
The light from his hand works like an intangible guiding rope drawing him behind its lead. He has been in this place many times before, yet at each entry feels utterly lost—even, in some way, bereft; his heart in his throat. It has always struck him as the backdrop to undesirable dreams: inexhaustible in its rooms, tangled by puzzling stairways and corridors, often presenting mystical compartments with no function he can divine. In dreams he has staggered from hall to hall with slow-thighed dogs panting unseen behind him; he has fled down stairs and stone slides; he has been swallowed altogether into the belly of the earth. As if the building masked a portal that led deep into ancient caverns, sculpted by slicked flues and hidden rivers.
Now here he is again, and, as in every dream, he is alone. But he is not dreaming. What was it the sick man had said just an hour before? There is always something happening, you just don't know what it is. It was a quote from somebody else.
He is twenty-three years old. He has no reason to imagine within a year he might be dead. The serrated butterfly knife folded into his hip pocket is mostly for show. Still he checks to confirm the blade is there. On such scant assurance James Cole Prather gropes forward, half-blind in the darkness, less substantial than the knife at his hip or the light in hand, an obedient and guileless spirit adrift from all familiars.
The idea for the night, Cole's idea, had been to go it alone with Shady Beck, the two of them alone after much strategizing and manipulation on his part. In his heart and mind Shady Beck was an end in herself. But she needed a little party, some chemical aid she called it—I shall be in need of chemical aid, she cooed in exaggerated high-class over the phone, her small-toothed smile a shape in Cole's ear—as an excuse to be out with him. Or maybe she needed it just to tolerate his presence, he wasn't sure. And he did not care. For years she had been a figure in the hands-off domain of his brother Fleece, a smile and a wave walking away to her car, a sunny laugh across the room to which he always dipped his head in a kind of bow.
Chemical aid required a stop at Spunk Greuel's house, where Cole did not want to go. He knew Spunk, had known him most his life, and understood that once with him they might be with him all the night long. The boy was a kind of stink that got on your clothes and in your hair and was near impossible to shake off.
Cole could accept the risk for the chance at spending time with Shady Beck. And it was unavoidable anyway, so no use in lamenting. Mister Greuel was the man to see for pills and pot and any other sin on spec. He led a loose crew—got his weed direct from growers in Clay and Harlan counties, the pills from God knew what Byzantine scams, his crank from his own cooks, most of whom followed Fleece. A dark and entertaining man, Mister Greuel—always with the Mister, nobody called him Lawrence—him with his tongue swollen from some strange sickness, goggle eyes awry in a fist of a sweating head. He had a face as rutted and pocked as barnwood. His fat tongue made him spit everywhere and mucked up his words. Listening to him was like sitting witness to the creation of a new language, you had to match terms previously unknown to what you had thought you readily understood. Like Spunk's real name is William. Cole had called him Billy on the playground. But one night providing the boys with the gifts of their destruction—what Mister Greuel called the bottles and blunts—Billy's dad started to get on his son for not bringing any ass to giggle on his lap. It was for young ass giggling on his lap that Greuel gave freely of his gifts of destruction. Unhappy to see only skinny adolescent boys scouring his stock, Greuel started to mutter over how his own son William was a punk. Except for his fat tongue the word came out shpunk. Mix that moment with teenage boys baked on the bomb and Billy Greuel becomes Spunk the rest of his life.
Greuel made the kids laugh but they knew not to mess with him. It was Greuel the guy that took down three Gravy Berserkers (one of the biker gangs from Montreux city) who thought they could reap business from a hick dealer by showing up with no more than chugging fat-boy hogs and a flash of a semiautomatic Glock. Greuel swept them out with nothing but a rifle and a Bowie knife, and he strung those bodies from a town-square tree like so much deer meat left to ripen in winter.
Yet on many occasions this man told little James Cole to think on him as a friend.
The gate code had not changed since the days Cole used to ride up on his bicycle. He punched in the numbers and parked by the stables where the old man ran legit side-business boarding horses for city refugees, rich folk buying into the new bedroom communities mushrooming on either side of the interstate. Shady took his hand and the small gesture thrilled him. Together they navigated the great yard of oxidized farming implements and roadside statuary, a mazy museum of throwaway Americana. They halted at the front steps before a clutch of gar hung gape-mouthed and stinking, their eyes collapsed into folds. Cole had no explanation for the fish.
Professor Mule shouted greetings from his Adirondack chair. He looked nested alongside a column of paperback mysteries, a thermos between his thighs, his Mossberg shotgun in easy reach against the porch rail. They had not seen one another in years but Mule said he would recognize that crazy eye of Cole Prather anywheres. You staying warm, Erly? Cole asked, skipping the man's nickname, ever uneasy before his grain-sack presence and the gun, though what Cole heard was you only needed to run from Mule if you saw him with his toolbox. Mule nodded and dismissed them, falling into a singsong hum as he returned to his book, a ridiculously fragile looking object in the grip of his pork-belly hands.
"I knew you'd be out here fore too long you wall-eyed rascal!" Spunk burst out, knocking open the screen door. He torched their faces with a breath that bleached the stench of the fish. Presented with someone she recognized, Shady regained composure and was in past Spunk and at the big bowl of reefer by Mister Greuel in his rocking chair before the screen clapped shut. Feeling like a calf roped on the run, Cole felt the Greuel house upon him.
They kept off the main lights by habit, the dim room illuminated by the small blue glow of a silent TV set. That and the headlight Greuel kept at hand, wired to a car battery set on the floor. As visitors arrived he liked to blind them in the glare as he waved the headlight about. Somewhere deeper in the house a transistor radio scratched out lonesome tinny fiddles and nasal harmonies that wailed tales of warning from another day. It was a greeting impossible to get used to and Cole had walked into it a thousand times.
Not Shady; she was on a mission. She pounced into the old man's lap and had her hands in the bowl, saying, "Mister Greuel how do you do, whyn't you tell us a story while I roll us up a fat one."
The old man's laughter came sick and raspy but it had always sounded that way and he would never die.
"I like her!" he crowed as he shifted in his chair, the weight of them both wrenching complaints from the struts. "Who is she?"
As if he didn't know. As if anyone in Pirtle County had never heard of Shady Beck, youngest of the three daughters to Doctor Beck (the pediatrician who had booster-shot them all), one-time star of the volleyball and swim teams, Shady Beck the walker-away from dazzling car wrecks, subject of several profiles in the Pirtle Notice paper, she of the hair like vivid champagne bubbling past her shoulders, hair that seemed a celebration whenever Cole saw it freed from its usual ponytail; her gray eyes had boys whispering her name into clutched hands at night before they fell into dream.
Still she introduced herself. As she did so Mister Greuel played the headlight over Cole, the beam driving heat over his face and arms. Spunk had to remind his father twice—That's Cole Prather, Papa, come on you know James Cole—speaking his name louder the second time in a dance with his father's shouted What? and Goddammit who? as he shook his head and dug one finger in his ear, lips curled into a snarl. He thumped the headlight against the side table as though to squash a scuttering bug there, the metal casing casting a resonant bell tone.
"Come in here with a pretty girl and you know where my eyes're at. Been so long since I seen this boy I don't even know him on sight anymore." Greuel's smile unveiled a row of small crooked teeth the color of cooked bacon fat. "Well it's always good to have a Skaggs around," he said then, assuming the part of gracious host, "even if all you can get's the one what run off." Cole did not correct him. A rattling cough throttled the man and threatened to throw Shady to the floor. Greuel gasped and gulped furiously from a bottle of water and raised one arm; then, once he gathered himself again, he clarified that he knew Cole wasn't all Skaggs. Not that it mattered anymore in today's day and age.
"How is that mother of yours? Still splitting meds with patients at the clinic?"
Cole shook his head. "You know she's not. She quit that place first day she could."
"Why would I know that?"
It was nothing more than his game, Mister Greuel showing off before an attractive guest. He was nodding and smiling to spur Cole on to what he wanted him to say.
"You got her the job," Cole said to the floor. "It was you the one got her hooked up with that lawyer for the disability."
"Lyda Skaggs working a rehab hospital," Greuel smacking his lips at the tasty ironies, "that there's the fox guarding the henhouse if I ever heard. Now how come I never see her anymore?"
Cole raised his shoulders and held them. He didn't know what made his mother do any of the things she did.
"Must not need anything," Greuel purred into Shady's neck, as quiet and murmurous as a lover whispering.
Dishes clacked in the back of the house from the kitchen down the hallway. The radio back there had changed over to a basketball game. The front room shuddered with the changes on the silent TV screen, a general dark closing down and then pulling back. Shady, comfortable in most all situations, ignored the awkward stretch of silence; she asked and said at the same time (which was her way), "You want to talk to Miss Skaggs, why don't you just call her," and ran her tongue the length of a rolling paper. Mister Greuel patted her thigh just above the knee, his single ornament—a large gold-nugget ring set with diamonds that followed a curve into the shape of a horseshoe—glittering blue fire.
"Now I have never cared for telephones. No point in them, nobody can understand a thing I say if they don't see me say it." He wagged the mustard-gray eel of his fat tongue; Shady peered at the lighter she used to fire up the joint.
"She'll come around," he added. "You can count Lyda a loyal friend when in need. You know what I'm talking about, don't you, James Cole?"
Cole wasn't there to discuss his mother. They had argued earlier that evening and her voice still stung in his ears the way only a mother's voice can sting. She had mocked his moving in, calling him her honored guest; she had called him lukewarm water in the mouth of God. It stung and he could not say why, or why she would even use those last words, Lyda being nowhere near religious. Her head was so blended in roofers and goofballs that no one could explain half of what came out of it. Still the insults pricked.
Lyda had asked why he was pursuing Fleece's girl. She's not Fleece's girl anymore, Momma, they broke up years ago. She said, You can't do better than pick up where your brother left off? He's your brother. Cole reminded her he was only half his brother, as everyone in the county liked to remind him they knew. She said they both dropped out of her belly so that made them all brother in her eyes. Cole said the gulf between the way she saw things and the way things were was wide enough to march an army through. A really big army, he stressed. Some time soon after this she came up with lukewarm water and the mouth of God.
The joint made its rounds. Cole held in the smoke for as long as his lungs would allow, as if his doing so could prevent everyone else from talking.
"You seen that Fleece of late?" Mister Greuel asked.
Cole raised his shoulders again, dropped them—he was beginning to feel self-conscious about this gesture—and passed the joint. "You see Fleece more than I do."
"That may be but maybe I haven't seen him lately, is what I'm saying. And maybe you have. That's why I asked the question."
Excerpted from GHOSTING by Kirby Gann Copyright © 2012 by Kirkby Gann Tittle. Excerpted by permission of Ig Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 5, 2013
One of my favorite books from last year and forever but not for everyone, quite brutal a times and sad but very much like cormac mccarthy def wort reading
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Posted March 8, 2013
Cause like it looks scary on the out side butbit does not give much info about it. But i need to remember NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY IT'S COVER.
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