A poignant tale of a once-proud Pennsylvania coal town destroyed by a mining disaster, Tawni O'Dell's second novel, Coal Run
, follows its wounded inhabitants as they try to come to terms with what is gone and what remains. "The Great Ivan Z"--Ivan Zoschenko--is a mythical football hero who, after being injured on the eve of a promising professional career, heads for Florida (and the bottom of the bottle) for a decade before limping back to Coal Run and getting a job as deputy sheriff. The novel spans a week's time, but recollections and suppositions of the characters add depth; the book's an engrossing adventure in self-redemption and acceptance.
Multiple plot lines abound: Ivan keenly awaits the release from prison of his teammate, Reese Raynor, who beat his wife into a coma and whom Ivan visits regularly in the hospital; Reese's brother and his family struggle with many kids, little money and fewer prospects; Ivan's boyhood hero, Val, a Vietnam veteran who likewise spent years elsewhere, returns with eyes for Ivan's sister, a waitress, former beauty queen, and single mom. And, of course, there's a love interest. Stood up by her date, Ivan contemplates: "What could possibly be more important than sitting across a table from this woman and watching her put things in her mouth? I wonder as I take a seat." Despite somewhat predictable plot elements, O'Dell has the benefit of so many different story lines and characters to choose from that the novel is well-paced and allows her powers of observation to shine. For example, Ivan notes: "I need a drink. I'm not embarrassed or apologetic about the craving. Needing a drink isn't any worse than needing to collect Beanie Babies. I'd rather be a drunk than a moron."
Coal Run is a pitch-perfect story of a town's rediscovery that the best thing about it is its people and their ability to survive and retain a sense of pride, even after its identity and many lives were lost. --Michael Ferch
From Publishers Weekly
O'Dell (Back Roads
) explores the dynamics of a tiny Pennsylvania coal-mining town in her probing, heartbreaking second novel, which centers on the fortunes of former college football hero Ivan Zoschenko. The novel literally opens with a bang in a flashback that recalls the tragic underground explosion that took the life of Zoschenko's father and killed 96 other men from Coal Run. Some 15 years later, just after Zoschenko is drafted by the Chicago Bears, his knee is crushed in an accident in the same mines. His subsequent fall from grace is long and hard; he moves to Florida, hits the bars and works as an exterminator. He returns home only when he hears that Reese Raynor, a former schoolmate who beat his wife, Crystal, into a coma, is being released from prison. Despite his drinking problem, Zoschenko is hired as a deputy by the local sheriff, getting back in touch with his gorgeous sister, a single mom and career waitress; his boyhood hero, now a reclusive Vietnam vet; Reese's troubled twin brother, Jesse; and Crystal, who is still comatose and reminds Zoschenko of a shameful incident in his past. That past is linked to Reese Raynor's, and the novel builds to the inevitable brutal collision of the two men. O'Dell's portrait of Zoschenko is deep and penetrating, but even more moving is her portrayal of the coal-town community. Ravaged by disaster and callous corporate treatment, the citizens of Coal Run still can't imagine any other life. As Zoschenko puts it, "Long before [the mine] became the site of so much death, it had been a source of life for all of us. For me it was the closest thing I had to God." Though it occasionally flirts with sentimentality, this is a fierce, sharply drawn and richly sympathetic tribute to working-class America.
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