THE UNDERWORLD (2017)
By Kevin Canty
W. W. Norton, 256 pages
One of the autopsy findings from the election of 2016 is that Democrats largely ignored the white working class. That's rather amazing when we have so many fine novelists in America who write of that life. Even a cursory reading of Richard Russo might have reminded party leaders there was a part of America they needed to investigate more thoroughly. So too would readings of recent titles such as Mark Slouka's Brewster or Phillip Meyer's American Rust. So now that your attention has been refocused, check out Kevin Canty's The Underworld, a novel whose tone is reminiscent of Slouka and Meyer.
The title, in my view, isn't wisely chosen. First, Don DeLillo used the same title—sans the article—in his sprawling 2003 novel. Second, most people associate the term with organized crime. Canty, however, means it literally: the underworld as the realm of miners working more than a half-mile beneath the surface. His is a fictional reimaging of Idaho's 1972 Sunshine Mine fire in which 91 miners lost their lives. His setting of Silverton is a thinly veiled pastiche of Kellogg and Wallace, located in the heart of the silver mining Coeur d'Alene region. Ninety-one people also perish in Canty's novel. So why write a novel at all? Wouldn't a collection of news clippings accomplish the same task?
Nope! That's because, in many ways, the major character of the book is Silverton, located in the thin thumb of Idaho that pokes up between Montana and Washington. It's a hard place to love, yet locals talk more about getting out of town than actually doing so. And when they do leave, they seldom venture much further than Missoula to the east or Spokane to the west. I instantly related to Canty's book, though I'm an Easterner—my own postindustrial Pennsylvania hometown has the same ensnaring qualities. I did not fall prey to them and left in the 1970s, the same period under Canty's microscope. To leave or to stay is the dilemma facing David, the book's central character.
Canty also uses Underworld metaphorically–those mental, often non-verbalized, excavations of people trapped by circumstance, depression, and indecision. David's one of the latter. He's a student at the University of Montana Missoula, which is just 120 miles from Silverton as the crow flies—though its network of culture, restaurants, upscale bars, intellectual life, and veneer of bourgeois respectability are light years away. He also knows–and his landlord reminds him–that Silverton can't objectively compare. It's a town of dangers: toxic air, seedy bars where a misinterpreted glance can mean being smashed with a cue stick, rampant alcoholism, and unhealthy diets. Silverton is where weathered whores have no trouble staying busy; it has dozens of bars, but just two TV channels that most view in glorious black and white. Above all it's a place where death in the mines can come without warning and the work wears a man down fast even if he isn't killed outright. David knows of mining: his father and his beloved brother Ray are miners.
Why on earth wouldn't David flee and not look back? If you have to ask that question, you need to learn more about blue-collar life. David goes to Missoula, but he is not of that world. His is the classic college first generation dilemma: David feels like an outsider—a poseur, not a scholar. He's right; the university crowd doesn't have a clue about what he thinks, what his life has been like, or how he feels. As bad as it is, Silverton is where people understand him–though they don't exactly. Man! I know that feeling! You become the walking definition of liminality—trapped between the working and middle classes and uncertain whether to step backward or move forward. So when someone tells you there's a job opening up that pays over $10 an hour (about $57 in today's coin), do you pursue a life of materialism and danger, or stay on the middle class track? Ray has stayed in Silverton. Maybe David should too: get a new truck; keep up with a longtime affair with his former piano teacher he thinks is a big secret, but isn't; and eventually get married a have a few kids like Ray and his wife Jordan.
Then the mine blows up while David is at school. Ray was in there. Did he make it out? What about Malloy, another guy from town? He and Ray are a lot alike–tough, funny, hard drinking, bombastic, and easier to love in the abstract than in person. What about Terry and Lyle and all the others David has known since childhood? What about the women who will be widowed if their husbands come out under a sheet? Jordan? Ann Malloy? Let's just say that, in 1972, feminism hadn't yet had a big impact in this part of the world.
The sections of Canty's book chronicling the fate of two men trapped in an air seam 3,500 feet underground are gripping and harrowing. It would behoove all middle class readers to contemplate what manual labor means. Do not dismiss this event as a museum piece. Think upon West Virginia's Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 that same year, or the 14 who died at a Waco, Texas fertilizer plant in 2013.
Yeah—maybe it's time to think about this kind of stuff. Canty–the author of five previous novels and an English professor at the University of Montana–has written a novel filled with action, pathos, despair, and glimmers of hope. His writing is direct, vivid, and so crisply paced that The Underworld feels like a short book. Is it ultimately a work of literature, or sociological commentary? Yes.