Saturday, April 28, 2007

Chuck Kinder and Wild 'n Wooly West Virginia.

From the very first time I caught a glimpse of its wooded rolling hills and hollows, I have felt drawn to West Virginia. Most people that I have known are puzzled by my fascination with the state. But most of these same people have never been there. The common perception among Pennsylvanians is that inhabitants of the "Mountaineer State" are backward, inbred, ignorant, redneck hicks. My experiences with West Virginians have been overwhelmingly positive. They are some of the most generous and accesible folks I have ever met.

Granted there are a lot of eccentric people among our near neighbors. The Hare Krishna North American headquarters is outside of Moundsville in the northern panhandle. Dr. William Pierce III (author of the white supremacist Turner Diaries , and founder of the religion of Cosmotheism) also made his home there. Jesco White, reincarnation of Elvis and the Dancing Outlaw, was born and raised in WV. Bob Denver (Gilligan) adopted it as his home after being busted for marijuana possession. And of course "the Mothman" is said to be hanging about, bugging the good people. Ex-KKK member and Iraqi war critic Robert Byrd currently serves as the senior senator from the state. The National Security Agency eavesdrops on all of us Northeeasterners from a remote listening post in West Virgina. Hasil Adkins, Brad Dourif, John Kruk, Joyce DeWitt, Soupy Sales, Jacob Young (the director), Bill Withers, Breece D'J Pancake, Lynndie England, Jessica Lynch, Mother Jones, Harry Truman (Mt. St. Helens victim), John Knowles, Chief Cornstalk and Devil-Anse Hatfield all hail from West Virginia.

That's an illustrious list. But let's not forget Chuck Kinder, the real-life figure that inspired film character Grady Tripp of The Wonder Boys. He's a shit-kickin' native from Montgomery, West Virginia. But he's also an author, professor, and director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. He once wrote a 3000-page meandering manuscript about his friendship with Raymond Carver. He fashions himself a real outlaw too, and makes much of the fact that he has been a boxer, a bank robber, a bartender and a coal miner. Until recently I had never had any real compulsion to read his books, but when I saw Last Mountain Dancer (2004) at Half-Priced Books, I knew I had to take it home with me.

In the wake of a very serious affair that almost broke up his second marriage, Kinder decided to take a sabbatical and get back in touch with his inner hillbilly. Toward that end he moved to Billsville and tried to get his head straight with moonshine and long drives in his SUV. He had some specific destinations in mind- Point Pleasant and the hollers of Boone County to hunt for the aforemmentioned mothman and "Jessico" White. But in all this time, he never leaves his academic tower completely behind. He indulges in long and rambling descriptions that mostly consist of a reiteration of stereotypes about the West Virginians he seeks out in the first place. Perhaps he has that right, being born among those people. Yet it seems akin to the comedian who cracks wise about his ethnic group, just because he can. It's certainly amusing, but at the same time- a bit cheap.

Kinder's reflections of his great extended family seem a lot more sincere than his commentary on modern West Virginians. The haunted tales of memory and loss that he passes on add something to the mythic landscape of those hills. And much of the local history is compellingly readable. But the most affecting sections of Last Mountain Dancer occur whenever Kinder takes the time to analyze the damage he is causing through his adulterous relationship. While at times he pats himself on the back for being able to hook a pretty young chick, there are other occasions when he writes with true courage about the emotional realities for all involved. Taken altogether this book contains enough truth and beauty to sustain my interest, and makes me sufficiently curious to check out another one of Kinder's books.


Blogger Rob Park said...

Ever find a plot of land in WV?

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yesterday I returned from a three day business trip in Pocahontas County WV. I parked on the main street of Marlinton and knew before I had gotten out of the car that everyone on the street had noticed the stranger. I asked a cop (Barney) for directions to the newspaper office. He walked me the two blocks there and interviewed me along the way. He also told me where the best sausage bisquits and gravy where and what recipe won the ramp festival of last week. When visiting WV be ready to let your guard down to really appreciate it. JM

8:58 PM  

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