— Lady Chevy, by John Woods (Pegasus Books, 2020)
The cover of John Woods’ debut novel Lady Chevy portrays a mountain landscape against an orange-hued backdrop. The colors may depict an oddly-tinted sunset or, more likely, the fiery, sulfurous sky of a land ravaged by the fracking industry, where flares emerging from giant towers light the horizon and tainted aquifers, flammable tap water, and earthquakes have become a normal occurrence.
The shadow of one such fracking rig looms over high school senior Amy Wirkner both figuratively and literally. Her father sold the mineral rights of their property to an energy company that pays them $900 a month to extract natural gas. The deal proved to be a costly devil’s bargain for the Wirkners as their newborn son, Stonewall, is afflicted by malformations and neurological problems.
Amy, cruelly nicknamed Chevy by her classmates due to her “wide backside,” seeks to escape the small town of Barnesville, Ohio and become a veterinarian. Like so many formerly industrial towns in Appalachia, the past shapes the way in which Barnesville’s residents, old and young, see themselves. To Amy, the town’s abandoned factories “prove things truly were much better. It isn’t our imagination. The world wasn’t always this way. Once, we contributed. We were important. We mattered. All talk now of our value is in the past tense, reminding us we are no longer great.”
Moving away would entail leaving behind not just Barnesville’s economic devastation but Amy’s own dysfunctional family. Her parent’s marriage is marred by her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s infidelities, and her uncle Thomas, the one relative who seems invested in helping Amy go to college, is a neo-Nazi survivalist.
Woods’ talent as a writer is highlighted in the nuanced depiction of these unsavory characters, aptly capturing the mindset that originates their worldview. Besides Amy’s uncle, we also read about her grandfather Barton Shoemaker, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, and local police officer Brett Hastings, a sociopathic enforcer inspired by Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg and social Darwinist obsessions. These three-dimensional renditions of antisocial individuals also condition the reader’s experience, making Lady Chevy both relentlessly bleak and compulsively readable.
Grounded in authenticity and evocative prose, the novel is nevertheless propelled by a suspenseful plot that kicks into gear when Amy’s best friend, Paul McCormick, pays her a late night visit. Drunk and enraged by his father’s black lung disease, Paul wants to destroy a chemical tank owned by Demont, the energy company that is ravaging Barnesville. He has built three pipe bombs based off The Anarchist Cookbook and he needs Amy to be his getaway driver. The ill-conceived plan has disastrous consequences.
A SELF-ASSURED DEBUT
Woods, who grew up in Appalachian Ohio, has published several short stories set in the same region and fictional universe of Lady Chevy. While one does not need to read them to fully appreciate the story, they likely help explain why this self-assured novel can be appreciated as a noir thriller and an artful literary exploration of social issues. Woods does not limit himself to the naturalistic description of a distressed region and its inhabitants nor does he editorialize. Instead, he delves into the psyche of outsiders, political radicals, teenagers forced into adulthood, and destitute adults with an eye for the precise detail and acute observation that stirs the reader’s imagination and invites them to think.
An Appalachian bildungsroman, a moral depiction of amoral characters in a hardscrabble world, and an all-around compelling story, Lady Chevy is an outstanding literary debut.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza