— Working It Off in Labor County, by Larry D. Thacker (West Virginia University Press, 2020)
Like an old school country album by Billy Joe Shaver or Merle Haggard, Larry D. Thacker’s debut collection Working It Off in Labor County tells stories about small town life full of quirky characters, humor that can be folksy and innocent but also dark, and heartfelt tales of day-to-day struggle.
Normally, the opening story sets the tone for what is to come in a collection, but in this case the title story strikes a light-hearted note with the tale of a community college teacher serving time after stealing a Civil War collection of artifacts he had previously donated to the Labor County History Society. In “Hot Ticket,” an arsonist sees the light after winning the lottery and opens up the Church of the Holy Fire of God, where he serves as a pastor to atone for all the buildings he burnt down in his previous sinful life.
Other stories can set a darker mood even if all of them are set in the fictional (and yet familiar) Labor County in southeastern Kentucky. Fire as a cleansing symbol returns in “The Hard Thing,” a reflection on becoming a man, whether it is the cliché about grinding one’s teeth and meeting life’s challenges stoically or living up to a different set of expectations irrespective of anyone’s notion of toughness. The recently divorced protagonist, Alder, wonders about his “self-destruct button” and the fact that he’ll never gain the respect he seeks from his father.
“When you gonna finally be a man about things, son?” asks Adler’s father in allusion to his lack of a supposedly “real” job as opposed to an office position. “A man is not a man until he believes himself one,” Addler reflects. “The sudden wakefulness of maturity can’t be legislated. Or taught, or beaten into someone. Men don’t just wake up on an eighteenth birthday willing to vote and change their country.”
The author of three poetry collections and a book on Appalachian supernatural lore, Kentuckian writer Larry D. Thacker straddles these different registers with ease, crafting the precise turns of phrase that depict an introspective moment or harkens to a front porch tall tale.
One of the collection’s strongest offerings, “Brotherhood of the Mystic Hand,” embodies this amalgam in a yarn about a gang of grizzled Vietnam veterans who meet every year for a weekend of debauchery. The symbol that unites them is the preserved hand that one of their members, Earl, supposedly lost in combat and shipped to America while recovering from combat wounds.
Thacker opts for a more whimsical and comedic approach in a series of stories about the eccentric owner of a roadside museum of curiosities. “Uncle Archie’s Acquisition” introduces the establishment, Archie’s Travelling Odditorium, where the manager, Archie Parker, has just bought a cryotube said to contain human remains. In “Uncle Archie’s Underground Reunion,” a Nashville photographer promises to shoot a photo essay about the Odditorium for a regional magazine. When he fails to keep his promise, Archie’s family pays him a visit. In “Uncle Archie Goes One for Three,” Archie inaugurates the Deadly Den of the Mountain Chupacabra, a new museum room dedicated to the legendary goal-sucking creature from Latin American lore. The new attraction proves to be a money maker but it also brings trouble when Archie is sued by a woman claiming that his chupacabra is actually her dog.
Working It Off in Labor County is a testament to Thacker’s solid storytelling in a lively mix that brings to mind the humor of George Singleton and the hardscrabble stories of Larry Brown.
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