Short-story collections cater to a smaller audience of readers than full-length novels. Short stories condense a tale, trim and tighten it, until not a word is wasted on the mundane, the trivial or the unnecessary.
Yet in the hands of a skilled author, a short story is capable of leaving the reader as satiated as a longer work might. Such is the experience of reading “Allegheny Front.”
West Virginia author Matthew Neill Null brings the richness of his mountain heritage to each page. He illuminates the region through his attention to small detail after small detail until the reader is carried along into a tale much larger than the page count would indicate.
Null’s lyrical prose sets the place as in his apt description of gravestones: “The stones were badly in need of mending, cleft by ice and water and eaten through with the soft persistent teeth of lichen.”
There are characters in his stories that stay with the reader long after the book has been completed. Null introduces readers to seemingly ordinary people by giving a glimpse into the often hardscrabble lives they lead.
The story “Mates” tells of Sull and Marion, with grown and gone children. The reader sees a sliver of their lives, solid and constant, a couple fitting together like an aged hand into a work-worn glove.
Other “mates” crisscross the tale: a life-long friend’s son and his fiancee, and mated pair of bald eagles. All three relationships bring more questions to the surface than Sull anticipates.
“Telemetry” weaves a story of Kathryn and two other researchers living in the summer months high atop a West Virginia mountain. The science of their work — implanting fish with tracking chips — is interwoven with interactions with a local man and his young daughter Shelly, camping nearby. Shelly is an accomplished girl-child Artful Dodger, relieving the scientists daily of little items from their camp.
Although strangers, Shelly’s father reminds Kathryn of their shared heritage, and her father he once knew. Remembering her family’s painful history of coal mining and her connection to the hills compound her internal struggle when she contemplates her uncertain future. The interplay of the unlikely group of campers is the pivot point for her choices.
Null understands the rugged West Virginia landscape and how its inhabitants blend and meld to its unforgiving truths and persevere in spite of it. He bypasses the tired cliches and timeworn assumptions of Appalachian life. He skips straight to the essence of the mountains and valleys.
Animals, and people, killed. Meager livings scratched out of spent soil. The struggle to escape, and the draw to return to the mountains are two sides of the same coin.
In “Rocking Stone,” the shortest of the stories, three generations of a family share an experience that forever changes them, each in a different way.
If you haven’t added a short story collection to your TBR (to be read) stack, you’ll want to add this one. Null brings people, places and things to life like few other writers can.
Winning the coveted Mary McCarthy Prize, “Allegheny Front” follows Null’s acclaimed debut novel, “Honey from the Lion.” His work appears in numerous publications, including the American Short Fiction, Ecotone, the Oxford American, Ploughshares, The PEN /O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories 2014.
Null holds an Master of Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he is currently the writing coordinator.
M. Lynne Squires is author of the blog “The View from My Cup,” in which her views, both literal and “right mind but left of center” ramblings spill forth. She is currently completing a cookbook featuring recipes and anecdotes from the mid-century. Find news of her work, the blog and sign up for her newsletter at www.mlynne.com.