The Underworld by Kevin Canty

If you haven’t spent an evening or two in the grand company of Kevin Canty’s work, now’s your time to start.

His previous four novels and smattering of short story collections are deeply rooted in time and a strong sense of place. His characters are flawed, often drunk and achingly human. On a line-by-line level, his staccato sentences are simply drawn yet suffused with bitterness, sorrow, loneliness and unrealized desire.

In other words, Canty’s chosen genre is fiction, but he peddles truth.

His latest novel, The Underworld, is based on a real event. On May 2, 1972, a reported 173 miners went to work, as they did every day, at the Sunshine Silver Mine in Shoshone County, Idaho. That morning, a fire broke out more than 3,000 feet below ground. Eighty-two men escaped or were rescued, including two men who had been trapped in a tunnel for more than seven days. Ninety-one men died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

It was the second-deadliest mining accident in U.S. history. With that tragedy at its epicenter, Canty constructs a brittle, shattered world around the fallout.

He begins his story just days before the fire. Ann Malloy is at a clinic an hour away in Spokane, Wash., for a follow-up appointment. After finding out that she and her husband aren’t pregnant, she heads to a random roadside bar, half-heartedly flirts with the bartender, throws back a whiskey, and nearly drives to Seattle before turning around at the last minute to head home.

“Twenty-two years old, and it feels like [my] life is over,” she thinks.

Hard-edged and exhausted beyond her years, Ann is like many of the women in the novel’s depressed, working-class town — young wives whose husbands and fathers work all day in the mine and drink all night in the bars. Some are waitresses. Others are convenience store clerks. They’re dissatisfied with the lot they’ve been given, but too broke or entrenched to do anything about it.

Then there’s David, who is home from college for the weekend to attend a wedding. As he looks around the reception at the sea of plastered old friends just itching for drama to unfold, he thinks, “This new life, this college life, he knows he doesn’t fit. This is who he is, this right here. A pickup and a pretty wife, draft beer and peppermint schnapps, church on Sundays.”

But that was before. After the fire, of course, everything is different — when David’s brother is one of the dead, leaving his wife alone to mother their two babies. When David’s father, the mine’s safety chief who saw things no man should see, takes up permanent residence on a green vinyl recliner in his garage woodshop, a can of Rainier always in hand. When Ann, whose husband also died in the fire, can’t stop regretting how “she wished to be free of her own life. And now she is.”

Such are the ingredients of life’s darkest hours, and though Canty delivers when describing the fire—including a few interwoven chapters detailing the nail-biting rescue of the two trapped survivors—where he really excels is getting to the heart of the hurt.

There was “nothing left but to live through it,” Canty writes. “An experience, not to be solved or planned or thought through. Too late for that, too big. Just a thing, a big incomprehensible thing, and they would see where they were when they got to the other side. If they made it to the other side.”

What happens to David, Ann, and the others in this novel is grim, almost suffocatingly so. But there are pockets of hope, too. When Lyle, one of the rescued miners, reunites with an old fling across the border in Kalispell after years of making do at whorehouses, or when David’s father discovers the small joy in refurbishing old blowtorches he picks up at yard sales, it’s just enough of tick toward the positive to remind us that life can go on after a tragedy.

Without giving away too many spoilers, it’s safe to say that David and Ann find their way to each other toward the end of the book — and the scenes aren’t saccharine or unrealistic. Instead, like much of Canty’s fiction, it’s an honest portrait of two lost souls trying to make sense of the hand they’ve been dealt, the choices they’ve made and have yet to make. When you find yourself in the bleakest, tightest of spots, maybe it is possible to make lemonade out of lemons.


Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 29, 2017)

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