Josh Weil: The New Valley (Three Novellas)

I checked this book out of the library after reading Weil’s story “No Flies, No Folly” from One Story. It was billed as three linked novellas about a variety of people in the New River Valley of Virginia. It received a glowing review from Anthony Doerr in the NYT as an example of how character comes from place, one of Doerr’s specialties, and as mastery of the novella form.

While I loved Weil’s One Story piece about a turn-of-the-century Jewish peddler and an Amish housewife enchanted by the newfangled electric light bulb, I found these novellas to be much to slow and plodding for me to enjoy. I only completed the first one, “Ridge Weather” which concerns Osby, a thirty-something farmer whose father just shot himself in the head. The story starts with the funeral, then proceeds to follow Osby as he discovers how lonely he is. He rides a schoolbus just to talk to the driver. But he doesn’t really want to get too close to anyone. This approach-avoidance thing is quite intriguing to me, but as I said, it moves very slowly. While at a convenience store, he decides, at the cashier’s urging, to rent a room, and puts up an ad. When the roomer moves in, Osby doesn’t want to go home any more. He returns to the convenience store and the cashier realizes he’s looking for, ahem, company. She has some problems with her propane tanks, and he offers to fix it. He’s thrilled with the idea of being needed – he’s hoping she has lots of broken things around the house so he’ll have to come back. She’s in the convenience store bathroom trimming her pubic hair with a Swiss army knife (as her ex told her men like it neat) and he’s thinking how nice it’ll be to have someone ask him for help. It’s a touching, funny-sad little scene. He has more of an emotional relationship with a steer sick with something called grass tetany which apparently causes paralysis and almost always results in death, though it’s sometimes reversed by a medication known as Cowdex. He does his best to help the cow, injecting him with Cowdex in the jugular (I’m always astonished at what farmers and ranchers can do), lies in the meadow with it, but is aware his father would’ve said, “Just put a bullet in its head.” Which of course his father did. But Osby won’t. He finally visits the site of his father’s suicide and maybe makes some decisions about moving forward. But it takes so long to get to that point, I just wanted to finish the damn thing, not really understand it. There was definitely a story there, one that deserves respect and proper attention. I regret that I failed to provide the latter.

I started to read the second story, about a man stealing a tractor (apparently some kind of antique classic tractor no longer in use) but I just got tired of slogging through it. I’m all for “thought” stories, where most of the story takes place in someone’s mind (and I usually get slammed for it, by the way) but this just got tedious.

So, with some regret, I abandoned the book. This is the second book I’ve abandoned recently, but I’m more adventurous in trying things on the strength of one story, so maybe that’s just the way it works.

Josh Weil: “No Flies, No Folly” in One Story #143 11/30/10

I was not always a peddler. I was once, too, a lighter of lamps. Street lamps. In the city of Providence. I was once a seller of lemons in Baltimore. I was a greenhorn seeing from the deck of a ship for the first time the lights of New York. I was a beggar. I was a deserter. Once upon a time I absconded from the Army of the Tsar. Once upon a time I was a soldier. A draftee. I was a Russian, a Jew. A brother. A son. The small sound you cannot hear in the dark on this road beneath the clanking of my pack is my spit landing. The other one you cannot hear is my sigh.

One of the most powerful story openings ever is: “And God said: Let there be light!” We of the Judeo-Christian traditions are fascinated by light. We see the light. We light the way. We look for the light at the end of the tunnel. A lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path. Light is life.

So cross-pollinate a Jewish peddler with an Amish housewife in the late 19th century, just at the time when incandescent light was developing. Add a little strange eroticism. And you end up with a helluva story. This booklet was a little thicker than most One Story’s, so I was dubious, but I ended up mesmerized.

Yankel visits the Hartzler farm about every three months. This provides the structure for the story. With each visit, he becomes a little more involved with Mrs. Hartzler, who is very interested in light bulbs. Then in generators. Yankel, who has his own interesting history as sketched in the early paragraph above, goes from carrying a rucksack to pushing a wheeled pushcart to driving a mule and wagon. Mrs. Hartzler – Esther – goes from an interest in light bulbs to generators to batteries. And their relationship becomes more intimate, albeit in unusual (and usual) ways. Let’s say you’ll never look at a light bulb the same way.

According to the Q&A with the author, the story was edited down by about a quarter to fit the One Story space requirements, though he plans to include it in a collection focusing on humanity’s lust for light. Yankel’s background is based on Weil’s great-grandfather whose life followed a similar path.

The prose is a little unusual (I thought it was charming, appropriate, and totally readable) since the story is set over a hundred years ago and the characters are from cultures that use other languages – Yiddish, German – freely. In fact, language is yet another erotic touchstone for them, and sort of reminds me of, forgive me, Wanda’s obsession with foreign languages in A Fish Called Wanda. It’s not really played for humor, though if you’re familiar with the movie, you may smile, as I did.

It’s well worth a read, as almost all One Story selections are. Oh, and the title? It has to do with Ecclesiastes, which is as much of a hint as I’ll give.