Monday, March 12, 2012


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The Cave, Robert Penn Warren, Random House, 1959, 403 pp

Robert Penn Warren is of course best known for his 1946 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All The King's Men, probably his best and a hard one to top. He rather fell out of favor with critics after that, but I have enjoyed all his novels as I've read them. He has that essence that all great Southern novelists have, getting down deep and dirty into the souls of the hill people, and the effects of poverty, loneliness, and stature either lost or never gained.

The Cave takes place in a small Tennessee town during the 1950s, a place where modern life may come in slowly but come in it does. Dominating the town is a hard-living, uproarious man who hunted bear, chased women, played guitar and drank whiskey until he lost his heart to a fine young woman. Jack Harrick then gave up his wild ways, got baptized by his best childhood friend, a preacher, settled down to his business as a blacksmith, and did his best to raise two sons. His best was not good enough.

When the elder son, Jasper, gets lost in the caves, the search for him brings out the worst in everyone living in Johnson, TN. Greed, power, fame, and a desperate need to escape take over its people and Robert Penn Warren lays bare both the individual and collective emotions of his characters.

At first the story felt awkwardly told and I could not begin to guess where he was going with it. Eventually though, the characters, their stories, their entanglements emerged and converged and drew me into the spell of his writing. I resonated and stumbled around with these people in a fever-like state that is so much like real life and so little like much of the current writing that issues forth from MFA grads.

The Cave is like a good, old fashioned country song. It tells us how the various characteristics and quirks of American life combine in a part of the nation which still has its own flavor to this day. Most definitely a worthwhile read.

(The Cave is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

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