— Undone Valley, by William R. Soldan (Cowboy Jamboree, 2021)
Undone Valley, William R. Soldan’s first novel, opens with two epigraphs from none other than French existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. They give the reader a feel for the bleakness that is about to come but also of the introspective nature of Soldan’s well-delineated characters in what is nevertheless a gripping literary thriller.
The novel tells the story of Dalton Hartwell, a college dropout in rustbelt Ohio who spends his days taking care of his dying mother and working as an on-call maintenance man in an apartment complex. Hartwell’s father, a union organizer, was shot and murdered two decades before in circumstances his son has never been able to clarify, not in the least because his mother, Pamela, has told him only part of the tragic story.
This fragile family balance is upset when Pamela receives a letter from the Ohio corrections department notifying her that Andrew Lareaux, the man who killed her husband, has been paroled from prison. Dalton’s simmering rage of two decades unravels and he decides to find out the truth on his own.
In Undone Valley, there are several other narratives that run parallel to Dalton’s. One tells the story of Malreaux as he navigates prison politics and strikes a bargain with the feared Aryan Brotherhood to ensure that his last days in prison go smoothly and he does not run into trouble with hostile inmates. Another subplot deals with Ellie, a single mother and Malreaux’s daughter, who struggles financially as a waitress while she prepares to welcome her father home.
Soldan lays out these pieces on a chessboard in the first third of the novel and it seems each member of the cast is advancing toward a predetermined, fatalistic denouement. Nonetheless, the story is far from predictable as its fully fleshed-out characters act in often unfathomable ways. The result is a novel where the suspense is sustained both by its strong characterizations as by a propulsive revenge tale with an element of foreboding Soldan administers in precise doses.
A Cascade of Misfortune
The terrain in which the story unfolds is a reflection of Dalton, Andrew, and Ellie’s own inner landscape, a once prosperous manufacturing region that collapsed after “a slew of mill shutdowns” followed a fateful day known locally as “Black Monday,” when a large industrial facility ceased operations. Soldan tells a familiar tale for the extractive regions of the country: “The months and years following saw massive layoffs and crippling fallout as mill owners refused to update equipment and adhere to EPA standards, and one after the other the remaining companies either merged with larger concerns in other cities or closed entirely, leaving most mill structures in the Valley shuttered and empty.”
Undone Valley is a story that works on two levels, both as an engaging noir novel and as a more subtle existentialist meditation that in no way interferes or weighs down its kaleidoscopic plot. The prolific Soldan is the author of three short story collections — In Just the Right Light (2019), Lost in the Furrows (2020), and Houses Burning and Other Ruins (2021) — of gritty, blue-collar fiction, as well as the poetry collection So Fast, So Close (2020). In Undone Valley, Soldan delivers a story that reads like the work of a seasoned novelist and a complex narrative architecture where the different plot threads and character stories converge seamlessly.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza