Book review: 'Hazard,' by Gardiner Harris

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By Patrick Anderson
Monday, April 19, 2010


By Gardiner Harris

Minotaur. 357 pp. $25.99

The recent West Virginia mine disaster repeated a tragedy we have seen far too many times: an explosion or fire or flood far under the ground; wives and children gathered at the mine's entrance; unseen men who may yet be alive; a rescue effort that moves all too slowly; sometimes, the miracle of survivors brought out alive -- and sometimes not; stoicism and funerals; calls for reform that fade as they confront the realities of coal-state politics. Then, after a few years, the tragedy unfolds again in some other corner of Appalachia.

Gardiner Harris's powerful first novel, "Hazard," takes us beyond these familiar images. He starts with a disaster underground, but his goal is to show us the day-to-day reality of men who mine coal and the women who share their dangerous lives. Harris is well qualified to tell the story. Now a reporter for the New York Times, he previously worked for four years in Hazard, Ky., as the Eastern Kentucky bureau chief for the Louisville Courier-Journal. His prize-winning reporting there was credited with helping pass laws that strengthened the state's mine-safety rules.

In his novel's opening pages, Amos Blevins is working 15 stories underground in a mine near Hazard. The scene recalls George Orwell's comment on England's coal mines: "Most of the things one imagines in hell are there -- heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space." Blevins is pushing a machine that claws at a vein of coal when suddenly "a block of coal about the size of a stove shot out of the wall" and grazes Blevins before crushing Rob Crane, one of the few black miners in the area. The mine starts filling with water. Blevins can't remove the block of coal that has trapped Crane and watches helplessly as he drowns. He does manage to carry another injured miner to safety. Blevins is a hero, if only briefly.

Will Murphy, the novel's other main character, is an investigator with MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. He questions the survivors of what at first appears to be a tragic accident: water from an old mine nearby that somehow broke through into the active mine. But Murphy's suspicions are aroused by signs that the disaster might have been planned. It happens that Will Murphy's estranged brother, Paul, owns the mine -- and the black miner who drowned was Will's best friend.

Neither Blevins nor Murphy is perfectly cast as a hero. Blevins raises marijuana on the side and, when one of his partners threatens him, he responds brutally. Blevins's wife is addicted to prescription drugs, and he beats a policeman who tries to arrest her. After that, he spends much of the novel on the run from the law. Murphy, for his part, blames himself for causing a mine disaster 10 years earlier -- by lighting a cigarette when he shouldn't have -- that killed another of his brothers. He's an alcoholic with a broken marriage who may be stumbling toward salvation as he tries to find out the truth about this new disaster that claimed nine lives.

Harris understands the fatalism of miners who know their jobs can kill them. He has Blevins reflect, "If the mountain wanted to take you, there was little you could do about it. Best thing was to pray to God and run like hell when the roof started to fall." Harris also values the beauty of Appalachia, as when Murphy visits an oddly, perhaps aptly, named little community: "Will looked up the hollow and realized that, if you ignored the trash in the creek, Hell-for-Certain was beautiful." It's a nice image of a blighted paradise.

Corruption is pervasive in the world Harris presents -- among miners, mine owners, politicians and police. The mine inspectors in Murphy's office solicit cash "donations" from the owners and, if they aren't paid, pile on citations that can close a mine temporarily. When Murphy speaks out against these bribes, he's warned that he could pay with his life for whistle-blowing. One of Murphy's colleagues tells him, "The politicians don't want anyone to really investigate coal mining. If they did, they would have given you a gun. They would have given you criminal penalties. They would have done something about collecting fines."

All this does not add up to a pretty picture of the coal-mining world, but it's a persuasive one, told with vivid prose, a fast pace and characters who live and breathe and bleed. If the recent West Virginia disaster moves some readers to seek out "Hazard," and better understand the hard lives miners live, at least some good will have come of it.

Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for The Post.

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