The three novels that Welsh writer Cynan Jones has published in the United States are uniformly slim and modest, snapshots of a climactic day or two in working-class lives. But like the best minimalist writing, they’re remarkably potent and brutal tales that pack a lot into a few pages. So much contemporary fiction can feel carefully machined and plastic. Jones’ books are fistfuls of raw earth.
His latest, “The Long Dry,” is actually his debut novel, first published in the U.K. in 2006; read it against his two other fine novels, 2015’s “The Dig” and 2016’s “Everything I Found on the Beach,” and it feels like a brash overture to his vision of the Welsh landscape as both perilous and sustaining. Gareth is a farmer who, as the story opens, is searching for a pregnant cow that’s wandered off. “They don’t think when they do this,” Jones writes. “Just stumbling and crashing along and it doesn’t make any sense.”
As with the livestock, so with its minders. Over the course of the day, as Jones shifts perspective from the farmer to his wife, Kate, and children, more complications emerge. Kate is mourning a miscarriage. His son feels trapped. A drought caused by a geomagnetic storm has ravaged the land and sent lives off kilter. “Epileptics had fits, and people prone to strokes or with weak hearts were ill,” Jones writes. “The electric things of our body went wrong in many people.”
As that line suggests, the mood throughout “The Long Dry” is dour, as Gareth continues his search. Decline and deceit are constants: One plot thread turns on the family dog, which is due to be put down; another turns on a secret of Kate’s that has had long consequences. What jokes there are fall strictly in the gallows-humor category, as when Gareth’s son tries to herd a group of ducks: “They are dangerous things that plot, like functioning addicts.” Its climactic event is a death in the family that Jones attenuates to heartbreaking length.
Yet for all that, the book has a poetic, elemental feel that’s enlivening even when the mood is at its lowest ebb. “What else is there to life other than following the path which brings pleasure and interest to you, without counting the cost or loss,” Gareth quotes his father as writing. Gareth doesn’t quite buy it, and the story makes clear he has every right not to. Nature is reckless, and people are filled with an “articulate cruelty.” Jones soft-pedals none of this, but he also finds a poetry in that struggle that suggests how his characters find the strength to shoulder on.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
The Long Dry
By: Cynan Jones.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 117 pages, $15.95.