All the Living
by C. E. Morgan
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,
208 pp., $23
The story is acutely intense, and as lean as a three-character play: In a remote area of Kentucky, a young woman leaves her job teaching music at a settlement school to move in with her boyfriend on the tobacco farm where he struggles to bring in his first crop. Alone in the old house overlooking the fields, Aloma spends her days cleaning and teaching herself how to cook, still dreaming of performing Mozart and Debussy, her only company a wall full of family pictures and a dead-toned piano sounding "spoiled like a meat."
Her boyfriend Orren, meanwhile, bereaved by the recent deaths of his mother and brother in a terrible road accident, grows increasingly rural. Isolation and festering misunderstanding have led to a brutal act before Orren encourages Aloma to find an outlet for her music at a nearby church. But when her fingers are poised again over well-tuned piano keys, Aloma finds herself drawn to the eloquent minister, named Bell.
Names here are subtly weighted with meaning: "Aloma," as musical and inchoate as the girl it belongs to, is less a name than a sound; "Orren" turns out to be only the workaday moniker obscuring the finer aspirations of its owner; and "Bell" has a one-note clarity that may or may not prove ironic. Period matters to the story less than place--trucks travel these hollers, and a heavy black telephone rings in the house (built by Orren's great-great-grandfather) but not cell phones, inside Bell's church, or assorted trucks (and who knows when gratification could last be found working a tobacco farm).
Colloquialisms are dead on--haddy, for instance, not howdy--and cryptically efficient, as colloquialisms tend to be, while an absence of quotation marks compresses the distance between a character's perception and expression to microchip speed:
He'd said one day, You gonna be my wife or what? and she'd made a joke of it, said, Sure, but don't get too stuck on me--I'm not long for this place. His eyes had danced and then he winked at her and only later it disconcerted her, that wink; it seemed to make a fool of her, or it rendered her a little girl suddenly, all aspiration and no plan. And no will to execute a plan if she had one.
A confession might be due here: A page or two in, and I was viewing this finely etched story with suspicion. Tucked into its rhythms might be a little too much influence of Faulkner, it seemed to me, and an elliptical inwardness that just might turn precious. On the other hand, there was that fresh take on the decrepit piano, and at least one sentence I could only read as musically flawless--"Displaced dust still hung behind the fender of her truck, loath to lie down in boredom again"--while a "sulled" eyebrow (at the sight of that piano) sent me to the dictionary, wondering if that was a longstanding regionalism I was reading, or this author's personal swerve, and whether its meaning should be read as closer to "sullen" or "sullied."
Reader, I read on--and was shortly hooked, not just by the artful confidence in this first-time novelist's idiosyncratic voice, but the arrow-to-the-heart accuracy in the book's vision of a very contemporary couple at that queasy honeymoon stage of sorting past the entanglements of hormonal attraction toward what, in their two carefully guarded selves, is worth surrendering in favor of opening up to.
A student at a nearby agricultural college, Orren was visiting Aloma at her school weekly, his hair slicked down and wearing a clean shirt, until the accident that drove him back onto his debt-threatened acreage. Joining him there, Aloma is virtually without history, raised for some years in a trailer by an aunt and uncle who showed her obligatory decency but no real affection, her parentage never really explored. When the doublewide got too crowded she was sent to the settlement school, where piano lessons were less a source of awakening than a hard solace, overriding the memory of boxed-in hymn chords pounded out by her aunt on Sunday afternoons. With the music resources of the school exhausted, talent earned her private piano lessons and left her hungering for more; but at graduation her options were limited to teaching where she was.
Meanwhile, lack of attachment has given her a fierce eye. Shimmering with the tension of Aloma's emerging awareness over a long hot summer, All the Living corners like the packaging symbol for recycling, from keen observation to constricted realization to contradictory thought, a tight-flowing triad of everything between her and Orren that goes unexpressed. Briefly, when she's goaded Orren into dispensing with his barnyard rooster, the awakening bolts into a moment almost comic:
Orren, my God, she said and then, in a heat, as if it explained something, My God, Orren, I'm a girl. Her words stilted out, sputtering in exasperation. . . . And when she knew she should have stopped she went on: Lord, just think a little bit next time. She heaved a sigh, not knowing how he could live with her and hear the words out of her mouth and lie with her every night. . . .
Triangulating to include the minister, the story both moves out over the broader ground of regional values and religious mores, and seeps deep into the meaning for Aloma of music. As a Kentuckian with a background in music and a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School, C. E. Morgan is clearly at home in this emotional and cultural geography. Bell, in his dignity, is an informing figure, ardent in the pulpit and committed to his convictions (but with a domineering mother), and if hard calvings and long-awaited rainstorms over parched fields are stock-in-trade scenes for coming to terms with life on the farm, Aloma's growing understanding of Orren's labors and loss give them an honest measure beyond cliché.
Morgan's language, though, is what matters the most. In the tension between Aloma's need to feel and her ability to see, All the Living resonates with the music of a good country fiddle.
Edith Alston is an editor and writer in New York.