By Maureen Corrigan
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 8:05 PM
Run for cover! A wall of toxic sludge is heading this way, burying everything in its path. Word is, even more spillage is gathering force behind this first wave, and more after that. Anything touched by this mass-produced poison curls up and dies within seconds.
"Rock Bottom" features such an environmental disaster, but I wasn't actually describing the book's climactic scene. I was talking about the novel itself, a dopey, brain-withering suspense tale by Erin Brockovich (with C.J. Lyons). Don't touch it! With any luck, this noxious nonsense will be quarantined in remainder bins seconds after its release, and the series it's supposed to launch will evaporate harmlessly into the ether.
Yes, this is the same Erin Brockovich (as played by Julia Roberts in the eponymous film) who, as a humble law clerk, took on utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric for polluting drinking water in the town of Hinkley, Calif. In 1996, Brockovich won the largest toxic tort settlement in U.S. history. So what's this famous muckraker doing inflicting this sloppy mystery on innocent consumers? The phrase "cashing in" comes to mind. Shame, shame. If there were an Environmental Protection Agency for literature, this novel would be cited for reckless contamination of a genre.
In shaping her plot, Brockovich clutched tight to the old adage: Write what you know. The novel's young heroine, Angela Joy Palladino (A.J.), made a name for herself as an environmental activist: As the novel opens, she's seen capitalizing on that momentary fame by hosting a radio call-in show, which bills her as "The People's Champion." (A caller who's become unemployed because of A.J.'s activism proceeds to shoot himself on air. The show is instantly terminated.) As a single mother of a boy with cerebral palsy, A.J. is desperate for work, so she decides to swallow her pride and return to her home town of Scotia, W.Va., to become an assistant to the town's rabble-rousing lawyer.
Ten years earlier, A.J. had left Scotia in disgrace, when she became pregnant by the local coal baron's feckless son, a hunk named Cole Masterson. But when A.J. and her son arrive back home, she finds that the lawyer, who had wanted to prosecute the coal baron for all sorts of sooty crimes, has died, apparently of a heart attack. Faster than you can say "Erin Brockovich meets Dallas meets 'Fatal Attraction,' " A.J. and the lawyer's daughter join forces to find out whether the old crusader was, in fact, murdered. Along the way, they battle the combined threats of mountaintop-removal mining; an overhanging ooze of coal slurry that threatens to drizzle down on the local elementary school; and Cole's crazed, childless wife, Waverly, who's determined to dispose of A.J. and her son.
The language of this hoot n' holler hell-raiser is as lumpy as the chicken and dumplings dinner special at the local diner. On returning to Scotia, A.J. comments, "Memories unearthed themselves like zombies clawing their way out of a freshly dug grave." Later on, a gay African American resident explains his baffling fondness for the racist, homophobic community in pure Hallmark hokum:
"Came here on a temp job, and, well, there's just something about this place. . . . It gets into you, you know? Like, all my life I've been searching for something and didn't even know it until I left the city and came out here, and suddenly everything makes sense."
Uh huh. If you say so.
Just when it seems like "Rock Bottom" can't get any more canned, we get the inevitable scene in which some psychopathic varmint in a pickup roars into view, hellbent on running one of the city-slicker good guys off a hairpin turn on one of the picturesque mountain roads.
In the end, the only thing genuine about this book is its title. As suspense fiction goes, it sure is "Rock Bottom."
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.
This Sunday look for a special pull-out issue of Book World all about children's literature:
The best new picture books.
Graphic novels that dazzle.
iPad book apps worth clicking.
YA novels to transport teen readers.
And a chance to play the board game of kids lit.
By Erin Brockovich with CJ Lyons
Vanguard. 260 pp. $25.99