— Pop, by Robert Gipe (Ohio University Press, 2021)
A novel that threads skillfully between humor and the stark realities of an impoverished rural community, Robert Gipe’s Pop is a compulsively readable story of a motley crew of feisty misfits and a modern day generational saga of a working class family.
Although this story is the third installment in a trilogy set in the fictional Canard County in eastern Kentucky — preceded by Trampoline (2015) and Weedeater (2018) — it is a standalone tale told by three distinct, well-delineated characters: Dawn Jewell, a middle aged woman who is worn out by years of activism against the opioid epidemic and poverty, and who now spends her days on the internet and drinking a local soda (or “pop”) called Yellow Dog; Dawn’s uncle Hubert, an unorthodox businessman with a shady past who is trying to make money off a movie crew filming in the area; and Nicolette, Dawn’s 17-year-old daughter, who drops out of high school and launches her own craft soda business.
Living to Tell The Tale
A sprawling novel, both thematically and in terms of story, Pop is comprised of multiple subplots and vignettes. These range from serious, “ripped from the headlines’’ storylines such as West Virginia poet Sam Haney’s crusade against a company that spills a toxic chemical into the Elk River in Kanawha County, to more outlandish secondary yarns like the shooting of a movie about rural Kentuckians fighting space aliens and a government that sells off its citizens to the invaders in a not-so-thinly-veiled allegory of extractive industry’s role in Appalachia.
Throughout Pop, Gipe’s lively, naturalistic dialogue, full of deadpan humor and playful turns of phrase — where someone is serious as “a bad car wreck” and the affluent representatives of a toxic chemical plant are described as “shiny-chrome-truck-bumper doll babies” — propels the narrative and eases the transitions from the comedic to the tragic and vice versa. It is not a coincidence that Gipe is known not only for his novels, but for creating Higher Ground, a series of plays performed and developed by community members in Harlan, Kentucky that draw on the participants’ experiences.
The Power of Stories
Given the novel’s ample cast of characters and episodic nature, readers may find themselves wondering where the story is ultimately heading. Gipe eventually ties up all the threads adroitly as the three main characters come to their own reckoning. Hubert, by coming to terms with his checkered history and his relationship with his beloved partner Tildy; Nicolette, by continuing to find her place in the world and recovering from sexual assault; and Dawn, by figuring out her relationship with her daughter and what inspires her activism.
Much like the title of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez’s memoirs, Living to Tell the Tale, Gipe’s characters draw strength from their lived experience and lift themselves up through the power of their personal stories. As Nicolette tells her mother: “Telling might be how the heart starts to mend. If the right person is there to listen.”
Gipe tells their compelling stories both with a keen ear for the little nuances that shape unique characters and his ability to create distinct voices. In this, Gipe is aided by his own James Thurber-like blend of words and images, as the story is accompanied by the author’s cartoon depictions of its main characters, who often break the fourth wall and seem to directly address the reader.
Unsentimental but emotive, both whimsical and realistic, Pop is a powerful brew.
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