Ig Publishing (April 2012)
Reviewed by Curtis Smith
Ghosting is not a book for the faint of heart. In these pages, we encounter poverty and desperation, abandoned dreams, bodies broken by illness, bodies broken by other men. Cruelty is inescapable, a malevolent tide that oozes from the hardscrabble backdrop of rural Kentucky. In Ghosting, Kirby Gann allows an unflinching gaze into the shadowlands of commerce and history and human hearts. We, Gann’s readers, emerge rattled. We have walked with monsters and their victims, and long after the cover is closed, we feel the chill of their shadows. And yet, we are also left with a glimmer of hope, a chance for salvation, a hint that glows all the brighter for the darkness from which it emerged.
The plot is deceptively straight forward—a young man, James Cole, wants to know what’s become of his missing stepbrother, a drug runner who’s made off with a kingpin’s marijuana harvest. Simple enough, yet beneath the surface waits an inescapable dissonance, a labyrinth of twisted histories and veiled motives. Little is as it appears, and we soon realize Cole, a man-boy who once desired to escape the world he was born into, has become whisked away on tides he doesn’t fully comprehend. He allows the few opportunities he’s allotted to extirpate himself to pass, poor decisions that carry him deeper into a tangle of death and crime. As the story progresses, we fear for James Cole. Ahead, through the darkness, waits a brand of trouble that pulls him—and us—like a bad gravity.
A rich supporting cast accompanies Cole on his journey. There are the gangster inheritors of the backwoods moonshine tradition. There are the children of privilege destined to leave this place and the impoverished who are bound to remain. There are addicts and sadists and believers. We have known their kind forever; they are like a chorus in an ancient tragedy, calling to both the reader and young James Cole. They remind us of fate’s heavy hand and the duty born of blood, forces that often trump the notion of free will.
Gann, who also wrote the well-received novels The Barbarian Parade and Our Napoleon in Rags, captures this tale in prose sometimes lush, sometimes harsh, but always stunning. I read this book slowly, often rereading passages, allowing the beauty of the language to resonate. Consider the novel’s opening paragraph. It’s both a bold invitation and an assurance that the reader is in good hands:
We are all surrounded by ghosts. James Cole travels among the living, but he is haunted by what may be and what has been. He has chosen to chase a ghost, and in doing so, he has plunged himself into their nightmarish realm. Gann’s mastery of page and plot allows us to go along for the ride. It’s a journey well worth effort.
Curtis Smith interviews Kirby Gann
Curtis Smith: The prose in Ghosting is strikingly beautiful. Tell us a bit about your rewriting/editing process that takes you from first draft to final product.
Kirby Gann: In the first draft I just try to find out who these characters are and what they want to do and what happens to them because of what they do. I try to pay attention to language as well, but it’s mostly about discovery at that point. Once the story is settled in my mind, I start over, with tone and diction my central concern—how to relate scenes and thoughts to the reader in a way that underscores what it feels like for the character on the page. It’s nice of you to say the prose is beautiful; that is my hope, I guess, but what I’m most concerned with is simply revising until a scene sounds “right” to my ear. I want the sound and rhythm of the sentence to reflect what it describes or states. And then also the attention to language here is a way of respecting, maybe even recognizing a degree of nobility, to the endeavors of the characters in Ghosting—whose lives, one has to admit, are pretty low on society’s totem pole.
CS: The story is pretty dark. There’s menace all around. Yet you end with a note of hope—or if not hope, then at least a hint of it. Did you always know this was the ending you wanted or did that change from your initial plans? If so, what caused the change?
KG: Well it’s not like Cormac McCarthy dark, with cannibalized babies and all. But the story runs through drugs and false faith and the desire to fill a God-sized hole in every life, so how skippety-doo-dah could it be, right? Seriously, though: no, I didn’t always know that the story was headed toward a degree of hope. I don’t start with much in terms of initial plans. I started with those three young people breaking into the abandoned seminary on a cold and rainy November night, and thought I had a short story begun; by the time I figured out who they were and why they were there I knew it was a novel. And there were the obvious southern gothic undertones and I wanted to play with those, see if I could turn up anything new.
The original ending was darker, almost cruel. But it seemed tacked on, and although I knew I wanted to have a degree of ambiguity about the fates of a few characters, that ending was too murky—in fact it pretty much ignored nearly all that came before it. The character Shady Beck required some continuation, a glimpse of the aftermath of what has happened to her, and her ignorance about the final outcome of events she had a large part in starting. She’s protected, you could say, by being from a higher class than her friends. She has opportunities. I thought about how to write that final chapter for weeks, and ended up one Saturday morning writing it out in a single setting, and hardly revised it after.
CS: You give us a landscape of rural hardship. How important was this element of setting? What first-person experiences do you have with this backdrop?
KG: I grew up in Kentucky, and although I’m primarily a city boy, it used to be that you could drive ten minutes in any direction and be in the “landscape of rural hardship.” This has changed; the rural hardship is still there, but further out from the city, except for these random pockets that you can fall into here and there, such as the lake area in the novel.
CS: You’re the managing editor at Sarabande Books. How does this impact your writing? Is it difficult to work on another writer’s manuscript and then return to your work?
KG: Actually it affects my writing in a positive way, mostly, in that spending so much close attention to manuscripts, and finding mistakes, or noting where the pace slackens or the prose gets clumsy, helps me to spot the same problems in my own work. That said, if I’m working closely with an author on a project it can burn me out on thinking about my own writing for a time.
CS: The best books you’ve read in the past year are . . .
KG: The Last Fair Deal Going Down by David Rhodes; War on War by László Krasznahorkai; Saul Bellow’s letters, and Samuel Beckett’s letters. Actually this list could get very long; there’s all kinds of great books out there.
CS: Beatles or Stones? How come?
KG: Jimi Hendrix.
CS: What’s next on the writing front?
KG: I have a few projects rolling around, but in general I take time off after finishing a long project like a novel, and read.