FICTION: A young social worker faces losses of her own: her brother, her fiancé, her money.By WESTON CUTTER • Special to the Star Tribune
David Connerley Nahm’s “Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky” is a deeply quiet, meditative novel centered around the specific losses of Leah Shephard, a young woman living in Crow Station, Ky. A social worker, Leah leads a small-scale existence: She lives in a small apartment, has little money and lacks most of what passes for a social life. What she has, ultimately, is one giant haunting: Her brother, Jacob, one Sunday morning in their youth, walked out of the house and disappeared. Along with that loss Leah was once engaged and more recently lost an inheritance after the older woman’s family questioned the innocence of Leah’s suddenly being written into the will.
While the basics of the story are easy enough to be stated clearly, the resultant novel is wholly strange because of how Nahm has written and structured it. The biggest readerly challenge is that time doesn’t operate in a linear fashion: From paragraph to paragraph you may be reading about Leah as a young girl playing with Jacob, or Leah at present, attempting to help poor families secure assistance, or some recollection in between those moments. The value of this intentionally destabilizing presentation is that one feels to be discovering the story rather than just receiving it, and the way the novel braids time feels somehow more accurate, emotionally: When isn’t the past swirling through waters of the present?
There’s an arch beauty to Nahm’s prose. “Ancient Oceans” is published by Two Dollar Radio, a great young company based in Ohio that champions strong, challenging voices, and when Nahm is firing on all cylinders, he’s no exception.
“Summer comes to Kentucky as a shock, as though it was impossible for the land to ever be green and full again. Magnolias with swollen white petals sway in warm breezes, record high humid air fills lungs like warm water and the invisible mechanism that animates everything slows as summer’s heavy thumb rests on its ancient belts.” There are times when his writing feels artily affected, too worked-over for its own good, but by and large Nahm’s control is great.
The problems of “Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky,” then, are hard to articulate. It features strong prose, the structure is generatively disorienting, and the central haunting driving the plot is absorbing. However, the book often feels perfunctory, flattened, which to this reader has mostly to do with Leah. She is in all ways an inert character, stuck in the swirl of her losses.
One slow-moving challenge confronts her, but due precisely to the fractured way the book is written, it’s hard to feel by book’s end like much has changed: The last page is nearly the same swirl of beautiful loss as was the first. It’s hard not to enjoy much of the book, and maybe equally hard not to wish it did more.
Weston Cutter is from St. Paul and currently teaches at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.