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In Diablo's Shadow

M. Allen Cunningham's The Green Age of Asher Witherow

M. Allen Cunningham's debut novel begins with an epitaph from Dylan Thomas:

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever."

It is an evocative fragment, and apt for Cunningham's melancholy and gothic tale of life in Nortonville, a coal-mining town in the shadow of Contra Costa County's Mount Diablo. Today, Nortonville is a ghost town, part of the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, and all that remains is its cemetery. But in the 1870s, when The Green Age of Asher Witherow is set, Nortonville was a thriving community of immigrant miners, mostly Welsh, who provided thousands of tons of soft coal for San Francisco and the fleet of steamers that sailed up and down the West Coast. Nortonville, like Frank Norris's Bonneville, is a progenitor of contemporary California, sharing commonalities of ethos and worldview -- such as the peculiar combination of multi-culturalism and insularity -- in immediate, tangible ways.

As a novel, however, The Green Age of Asher Witherow is alternately fulfilling and flat, a book that disappoints not because of sloppy writing or poor execution, but because it leaves fascinating morsels that evoke what the book could have been, and what Cunningham is capable of. It is somehow fitting that Cunningham does not reach the somber, final lines of Thomas's poem, which read, "And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb / How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm."

The novel centers on young Asher Witherow, the American-born son of Welsh immigrants. His father is a miner, and Asher works for the mining company by day and attends school in the evening. Asher narrates the novel looking back from old age, and it is clear from the outset that he is unreliable. He admits that searching through his memory is "a bit like trying to find something precious in a cluttered drawer"; more pointedly, he states that "Memory is a night landscape. Shadow of hills against shadow of sky."

Over the course of the story, everyone close to him dies or leaves: his friend Thomas Motion; Anna Flood, his first love and confidante; his mother, Abicca; his schoolteacher, Josiah Lyte; and finally his father, David. Asher tells his story in part to make sense of his past, to come to terms with the difficulty and sorrow he experienced as a small child.

But it is also an attempt to expiate his sins, to absolve himself of responsibility for the part he has played in the fate of each. Part of the flatness of the novel, however, lies in Asher's tepid repentance of what we slowly come to realize is a very guilty conscience. Asher in 1950 admits of Thomas Motion, "I've dreamt his image for many years," but that dream leaves him -- and us, as readers -- somewhat cold. "I never wept for Thomas Motion, as I've never wept for anyone in all my life. Even now, though I've reached my final years, I'm not inclined to weep for anything."

It turns out the young Asher is present at Thomas's death. He burns until his body is brittle "like paper"; indeed, Asher lights the torch that accidentally sets Thomas ablaze. Asher never truly expresses regret, nor does he for others. Even Asher's father -- the character with whom he is closest -- seems to fade away, out of Asher's consciousness and out of Asher's life.

Cunningham never fully exploits the unreliable narrator device. It works best when the disconnect between the narrative and the "truth" of the situation is not only perceivable, but palpable. Nabokov's Lolita comes to mind immediately as the quintessence of this. Unlike Nabokov, who draws us into Humbert Humbert's chilling perversity and humanity, Cunningham fails to make Asher's uncomfortable, self-serving or self-deluding moments leap forward. Asher may be lying about Thomas Motion's death some 80 years after the fact, but there are no clues dropped to suggest this other than Asher's occasional admissions to the difficulty of remembrance. It could have been an incredible success, for Cunningham has the skills to make it work.

The most vibrant characters in Cunningham's novel are not Asher and Josiah Lyte, who get the most pages, but the two women closest to Asher: Abicca Witherow, his mother, and Anna Flood, his love and best friend. Cunningham's best passages come when the fiery, maternal Abicca is most vulnerable, whether being forced to admit that her son saw Thomas Motion die, or secretly taking Anna and Asher to see Sarah Norton, the town's midwife and herbalist.

The delicate heart of the novel, though, is Asher's time with Anna. Soon after Anna moves to Nortonville, she and Asher begin to tell one another their secrets. Even as Anna reveals that she sometimes wishes her long-ailing mother would die, Asher is unable to reveal his part in Thomas Motion's death. Their relationship buckles under the strain of this unequal sharing but never breaks. Even when Anna finds out that Asher has withheld his secret from her, she is not upset. "My poor dear," she says, "You carried it for so long. You must have suffered for that." Yet Asher does not and cannot weep for Anna, either, when her fortunes turn. (No need to give too much away here.)

One other character bears mentioning: the Diablo Valley itself. Cunningham shows a knack for picking beautiful, haunting settings: the road to the Nortonville graveyard, air pressure doors in the coalmine, and the East Bay hills most of all. He displays a real love for California geography and climate, the hills green in winter and gold in summer. Asher comes not only to know the people of the valley but also the valley itself, inside and out. "I came to sense that wide Diablo Valley like a body stretched out below," he writes. "The mountain bulged in the valley's chest, like a heart... Somehow all the grim pressure inside of me took on the slow and fateful weight of the earth's palpitations, just as terrifying as ever, yet more inevitable."

At the end of the novel, Asher, now old, rambles through Nortonville with his grandson, and we see his pride in knowing Mt. Diablo, its hills and valleys and mineshafts. His grandson, born in the 1940s, does not believe that coal could be found there, nor that old mineshafts still pierce the earth. Asher becomes impassioned, for this is his mountain, his home. The landscape, I suspect, is the only thing Asher knows how to weep for. The landscape is all he can admit to loving.