I love it when I stumble across a book that ends up being a gratifying read. That’s what happened with
The Evening Hour, Carter Sickels’ debut novel. I saw a short review of it somewhere but don’t remember what it was that prompted me to put it on the reserve list at the library. Even after I brought it home I almost didn’t read it. The description on the back cover just didn’t sound like the type of book I like. I gave it a chance and after reading it in two sittings over less than 24 hours, it was clear that was a good decision.
The Evening Hour is an extremely well-written (and readable) story in which you succumb to the plot and the characters. It’s not a thriller. It’s not fast-paced. It’s not filled with action or adventure. In its own quiet way, it’s one of those books that you kind of dread finishing.
Set in the “hollers” and back roads near a small coal mining community in West Virginia, Sickels gives us plenty of believable characters who are “have-nots” and heading toward even less — or worse. Other than the coal mining industry, the only jobs seem to be low-paying service jobs, whether at a local eatery or Walmart. The book is written from the viewpoint of Cole Freeman, an aide at a nursing home who makes more money selling prescription drugs of the elderly to the younger. But the book is not built solely on Freeman. Sickels gives us a sense of the people, the land, environmental degradation, drug and meth use in rural areas, and the ties that somehow keep people in places where they realize there’s probably no better future.
It’s not that Freeman’s story isn’t interesting. He was raised by his snake-handling Pentecostal minister godfather and has only seen his mother once since she disappeared immediately after his birth 27 years before. Not surprisingly, he has some religious and mother issues to work out. His drug-dealing and occasional thieving seem diametrically opposed to the deep care and concern he has for family, friends and the elderly both in the nursing home and outside it. Although Freeman seems to have synthesized these elements and become someone who senses there is more going on in the lives of area residents than is always apparent.
At times the setting conjures a Winter’s Bone-type feel. Here, though, Freeman is not on a mission; like his friends and family, he is simply living life as he has come to know it. The Evening Hour can be and frequently is bleak. Yet the unforced realism is a large part of what grabs and maintains the reader’s interest.
The book may well not top or even make my best of the year list. But that’s not a prerequisite for enjoying an exemplary novel.
The old folks’ paranoia ate at their minds like salt on slugs.
Carter Sickels, The Evening Hour