The fracking rig is an industrial spire at the back of our property line, about a quarter mile from our trailer. At night, its twenty-foot flame enchants the orange horizon, a fire’s dance, a hellish light that is no light. We get a check for $900 every month. Mom cashes it quickly, ashamed to have it in her home. The land is ours. It’s still ours. We sold the mineral rights, but that wasn’t all they took.
Amy studies to earn a scholarship to Ohio State so that she can become a vet. At a party, she runs into her close friend Paul. He persuades her to drive the truck he is taking into a fracking station to help sabotage a fracking plant. Plans go awry, and Amy ends up killing a guard--though nobody beyond Paul initially knows she is involved. From there, her nightmare widens.
Perhaps the best social and political context for Lady Chevy is China Mieville's 2015 essay “On Social Sadism:" (https://salvage.zone/in-print/on-social-sadism/). Woods makes art out of the sadism Mieville describes as endemic to neo-liberalism: in Woods's telling, Barnesville is one of the locus points on which a neo-capitalist culture of power has unleashed its fury. Mieville's concepts of "a normalised sadism" emerges concretely in this novel. Woods's description of poisonous fracking, is the language of rape:
The earth trembles beneath us, hydraulic blasting, deep groans in the subterranean dark. Chemicals strip away shale, seep into the aquifers, contaminate the soil, and extract natural gas to feed our nation.
and becomes an embodiment of Ann Coulter "gloss" of Genesis 1:28:
God said so: Go forth, be fruitful, multiply, and rape the planet — it’s yours.’ (Mieville)The larger society's cruelty is inscribed on Amy's body (an added "value" of her 270 pounds is more opportunity for shaming) and those of her family and neighbors, who alternatively are filled with abject self loathing and an equal and opposite will to suppress compassion to present themselves as ruthlessly "strong." When not abject, they become the mirrors of the dominant sadism.
The characters often lash themselves as harshly as the billionaire class berates them, and many internalize the ethic of the sociopath. To escape and to make something of herself is Amy's driving passion--but as the novel illustrates, for the poor, the cost of such a will for success becomes a never-ending horror story. Amy's deep temptation is to adopt a fascist morality, as articulated to her by Officer Hastings:
“God does not exist. Neither do human rights ...The strong know this, deep down. But we must return to a time long before Christian crosses and Jewish prophets, when the ideas of equality and good and evil were recognized as the idiocies they are”
-- which replicates the ethics of the master, as described by Mieville:
‘The ability psychopaths [in the financial sector] have to turn down their empathy and block out other concerns make them the best operators in high- pressure environments,’ McNab tells the Telegraph. ...Woods shows the colonized as living in the midwest United States. The bleakness of the novel is the deep shade of the dark enlightenment turned against its own. Mieville states:
The Enlightenment was always a dark enlightenment. Viciousness and brutality in their most unmediated forms were still – and are – deemed appropriate for the colonies.Woods uses relentlessly hard hitting sentences and a consistently dark tone to amplify a story animated by a compelling central character and surprising plot twists. Beyond the strong writing and story, it is worthwhile to read the book to explore the consequences of internalizing the sadism of the colonizer.
All of the above is prelude to an interview: I had an opportunity for a conversation with John via e-mail about his book and writing life:
1. Me: As we discussed briefly, I have lived for the last 12 years in Barnesville, where the story is set. To a resident like me, the Barnesville you describe, though it keeps some of the street names and mentions some familiar places, is a dark, Gothic version of the town as I know it. Could you talk a little bit about why you used the name Barnesville, and what drove the darker vision of the town?
John: I grew up in Barnesville, Ohio. It is my hometown. My childhood was filled with memorable and formative experiences. My family lived just off Main Street next to The First Presbyterian Church, where my dad was pastor. As a child, I had great freedom. I left my front door, rode my bicycle, and explored the town: the Victorian houses, the abandoned factories, the shaded hills, and the dark woods surrounding everything. I got in all kinds of adventures with friends. But in a small, Appalachian community, life is hard. Children are not sheltered from reality, or poverty. You see a lot. You grow up fast. You become haunted. .... at first, I wrote about a no-name town in an undefined state. Then I wrote about a place suspiciously called Belmont. ... all my writing fell flat. None of it worked. And it didn’t work because it was not grounded in a place I knew and understood intimately. I was withholding.
... So, I chose the place that influenced and shaped me most. All of my writing is set in the Ohio Valley, with Barnesville at the center. ... [but] ... My depiction of Barnesville is fictitious. The Barnesville I explore in my writing is not the Barnesville that exists. It is a shadowed stage, a nightmare version of a specific place that reflects the world we all inhabit.
2. Me: Amy’s a great character, and a reader tends to be on her side, especially at the beginning, yet her character also leans deeply into a “kill or be killed," “survival of the fittest mentality.” Can you talk a little about that, and why you choose that path for her?
John: I fear such thinking lurks at the core of Amy’s family, our country, and the world. I feel Amy chose her own path. One can’t be surrounded by such darkness without being influenced by it.
3. Me: A good writer can—and no doubt should!!-- get inside the head of all sorts of characters that aren’t “them,’ but I am interested in why you chose a female protagonist.
John: My fiction involves many different characters and narrators, men and women and children. First person is a special thing. Before writing in first person, a voice must come to me, and then I must inhabit the mental space and language of that distinct voice. That may sound odd, but it’s true. I listen to the voices. And so, the choosing of a female protagonist was not deliberate. Amy’s voice sounded clearer than the others, a kind of severe sorrow and strong resolve tinged with gallows humor and rage, and then I imagined a baby crying on the floor in the shadow of a kitchen where fire came from the faucet instead of water. I imagined a girl wandering that home’s dark halls. That voice, and those images, is what I followed, and then everything developed from that. These voices, of course, are influenced by people I know. And the women in my life have always been strong. And they have always been strong on their own terms, without adhering to any societal conventions of this or that. They are their own authentic selves and make no apologies. They are survivors.
4. Me: The novel seems to lack a redemptive moment where good wins over evil in favor of a relentlessly “good guys finish last” ethos. Could you comment on that?
John: I consider Lady Chevy to be an antithesis to Crime and Punishment. That is the comparison that lingered with me as I wrote Amy’s story. Except here, those redemptive forces are not victorious. I value moral ambiguity, and the existential dread that arises from it. I feel it is dangerous to assume our world is stable, and that a civilization’s moral compass is dependable.
5. Me: Amy’s ironically named Uncle Tom, a survivalist Nazi, turns out to be a hollow man—talk rather than action-- or so I took him to be. Why is that? Does that motivate Amy to act?
John: Thomas Schmidt is a traumatized character, primarily from his war experiences in Iraq, but also from a “violent childhood.” I understand him as a man possessed by an ideology that does not align with his true self. I would not mistake him as hollow, because I think he truly believes such racist hatred and would act upon it under the right circumstances. But he avoids those circumstances by isolating from the world. I wanted to explore what is beneath such racism, diminishing human beings into nothing more than their biology. And I believe it is the allure of Fascism. Fascism is the amoral application of power, a worldview where “Might makes Right,” and violence ultimately achieves all ends. This pathology then characterizes the state, and its defined people, at the expense of all others. In a toxic environment, these horrific ideas seem attractive and empowering. This is the dynamic between Tom and Amy. Their relationship is an unusual form of influence, because I am not certain either knows transmission is happening. Amy is not a racist, but she is negatively affected by Tom’s worldview. Tom eventually comes to understand this. But it is too late.
6. Me: Amy says: 'Barton Shoemaker was never evil to me, just a loving grandpa who told me all life is struggle, an evolutionary war of survival, winners and losers, those who eat and those who get eaten. He told me all this like a bedtime story. I never liked it. I didn’t like how it tore away at everything good. He said it makes a person sad, makes them sick, alone, even when it’s necessary, even after you’ve chosen what side you’re on and carved your name in stone. It all seems wrong and makes you feel wrong. But that doesn’t make any of it incorrect, does it." AND "We’re the apex predator now, nothing to fear but ourselves. I’d eat someone to survive. No doubt in my mind. In a cold, dead world of infinite winter, without sunlight or crops or plants, where nothing grows, a fallen world, I’d chain people up in my basement, harvest them as resource, choose the finest cuts. I’d remove their tongues first, a kind of delicacy. It would stop their talking." Amy, especially in the second quote, seems to have internalized some of the masculinized memes of our culture, at least the far right culture, in large part, I assume, because of her male role models. It seems to me she has developed a gap between her feelings—what feels “wrong” --and her intellect. Are we meant to take away that her intellect has blind spots? Or are we supposed to feel that in her situation she has no choice but to divorce herself from her feelings if she wants to survive? She doesn’t seem to be a sociopath—for example, she has real feelings for her little brother—but she does seem to make a choice to aggressively tamp down her humanity. Can you comment on that?
John: This is all connected with the previous question concerning Tom’s influence. His intellect has hardened his spirit, his humanity. Amy navigates her experiences similarly, so that she can escape punishment. This also speaks to that Darwinian “survival of the fittest mentality,” which echoes throughout the novel. In my writing, I feel it is important to question some of our most sacred assumptions. One of those assumptions is our association of intelligence with goodness, our belief that logic and reason somehow equate to moral authority. I do not trust human intelligence. The creeping presence of Fascism is the undertow of Lady Chevy. The most dangerous thing about Fascism is that under certain conditions its worldview appears convincing, and its violent methods become, in fact, logically persuasive.
7. Me: Ultimately, the book left me with the take-away that there is no way out of a dog-eat-dog mentality if one is to survive: Hastings and others seem to survive by that ethos. Is there a way out of that loop for the reader? Is that what you meant as the take-away?
John: Amy’s story is not prescriptive. And all the characters in Lady Chevy reflect a similar and shared tragedy. I believe tragedy—personal, familial, intergenerational, historical—often becomes cyclical. It is a closed loop, a kind of Mobius strip, forever repeating and alternating. When I critically consider history and the state of our world right now, I am not sure there is a way out. I hope so. But I also feel that if humanity were capable of creating a world without conflict and violence, we would have done it by now. I would like readers to leave Lady Chevy with a sense of empathy, and a greater awareness of our shared tragedy.
8. Me: Could you comment on some of the writers and genres that have influenced you?
John: I am a literary child of Horror. Without an early attraction to Horror stories, I doubt I would be an avid reader, or writer. Only later did I enjoy the genres of Noir and Literary Fiction. Stephen King, Anne Rice, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Allan Poe were my earliest influences. Then I discovered the Southern Gothic Tradition: William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, then William Gay, Larry Brown, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, and Tom Franklin, followed by Ohio authors Toni Morrison and Donald Ray Pollock. And then William Golding, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, James Carlos Blake, John Steinbeck, and Raymond Carver. All of them influenced me. But Cormac McCarthy and Sylvia Plath are the writers who unlocked the power of language in me and allowed me to discover my own voice, which is the most important thing.
9. Me: And finally, what is your next book about?
John: It is a collection of short stories, Something Tender. The stories are all set in Barnesville. They are linked narratives, featuring many of the characters in Lady Chevy. In my writing, I want each work to be autonomous, but to also enhance all the others. It is a shared universe. This collection has been acquired by a publisher in France, but it does not yet have a home with an American publisher. I am currently finishing another novel, a murder mystery set in Barnesville during the 1990s. It explores many of the unanswered mysteries within Lady Chevy.