"Hardcastle," John Yount's third novel, begins with both hero and country in the midst of hard times. It's October 1931, and Bill Music is a hobo riding the rails, trying to get home to Shulls Mills, Va. He's caught sleeping in a haystack by Regus Bone, who marches him at gunpoint into a four-room cabin near the small coal-mining town of Hardcastle, Ky.
Fortunately for Music, instead of being shot he's fed by Regus mother, Ella. She asks in return for a reading from the Bible. "At the beginning of the third chapter of Genesis, she t'll do handsomely. You read s'purty and s'fine; but if you just as soon, I'll not hear of the serpent this evenin.'"
On of the messages of this well-crafted absorbing and sometimes wonderfuly humorous novel is that we have to hear about the serpent. One of its principal strengths is its insistence that despite the evil in the world, not everyone has sold his soul to the devil.
Hardcastle is a novel of many such balances. Take the book's central story of the struggle between union and management for control of an improverished Kentucky mining town. The reader can see the logic of both sides, becaue the main character alternately belongs to each. First Bill Music work as a company goon. Then he support labor in the increasingly bitter fight that leads to the novel's climax. Whether mine guard or union activist, he keeps the reader's sympathy and understanding. It's the man Yount writes about, not the image.
Yount shows his disregard for vague images in the novel's many small, carefully rendered details. In particular, Yount employs dialect frequently and effectively. One old lady, told to be quick, retorts: "Don't rush me, chile. . . . Hit ain't no quick left in me." Yount is also accurate about sights and smells, the dirt on the faces of poor children in Appalachia, the sulfurous air of a town where all the men dig coal and all the women cook with it. Or when Music thinks of home, he pictures his father "riving out shingles . . . the wooden mallet would be striking the froe and bouncing once after each lick."
The author renders everyday experience so accurately that it becomes vivid and interesting. But what makes these lively details add up is Yount's gift for storytelling. The novel has the old-fashioned virtue of being about a single action: how Bill Music strayed into Hardcastle, and became committed to a place which even in the bright sunlight looks "like a picture drawn in black, sepia, and shades of grey."
Within the big story there are many tales, jokes, anecdotes and even a romance. The humorous tales have a Mark Twain deadpan glint about them, as in a yarn about a bear cub and its mother. It's a realist's bittersweet laugh, appropriate for people who eke out a life so meager and spare that the gift of a pound of coffee can go a long way toward winning a woman's heart.
The love affair in "Hardcastle" reminds me of the wooing of Lena Grove in Faulkner's "Light in August." Merlee Taylor, Music's girl, has known harsh realities: She lost her husband to a mine-guard's bullet. Music's courtship of Merlee has a satisfying maturity. Yet their ages -- Music is at most 20 -- gives to their encounter poingnancy and passion.
Other names besides Faulkner's including Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, could be involked in connection with this book. "Hardcastle" is a Southern novel, not because it is parochial and everyone talks funny, but because it is faithful to the particularities of a time and place, and to the techniques invented to capture that place.
He is especially close to fellow North Carolianian Thomas Wolfe in his use of the theme, "You can't go home again." And his prose can rise to a lyrical, poetic lilt. But he's a good deal more disciplined than Wolfe, and he particularly lacks Wolfe's adolescent sprawl.
"Hardcastle" has just about everything I like in a novel: narrative drive, humor, finely honed language and rounded, compassionately observed characters. The tune Bill Music sings is a little like a melody spun out on a country fiddle: not perfect, at times rasping, but capable of the exuberance of a square dance or the melancholy of hillbilly blues. At one point Music is "in no mood to kid himself with easy conclusions." Yount's similar moral sensibility makes his voice distinctive, and his novel "s'purty and s'fine."