REVIEWED BY SANDY EBNER
The beauty of indie publishing is that, when you least expect it, you might stumble upon a gifted writer working at the top of his craft. Such is the case with Sheldon Lee Compton and his wondrous new novel, Brown Bottle.
Publishers like to slap labels on a writer’s work in order to make it easier to sell. While Compton is, in fact, a writer who lives in, and writes about, Appalachia, in this case labels would only detract from the fact that Brown Bottle is, quite simply, a great story.
The protagonist, Wade “Brown Bottle” Taylor, is a man possessed, by alcohol, and by the need to protect his young nephew from addiction. Set in and around a small town in eastern Kentucky that is slowly dying, the story of Brown Bottle is a universal one: redemption, revenge, love, hate, all the complex emotions are here, the motivations that cause people to do what they do. Each of the characters in this book (with one terrifying exception) will break your heart and make you wonder, as in all great stories, what you might do under similar circumstances.
The brutality of consequence is a central theme, as is the inevitability of circumstance, the devastation that widespread addiction can cause in a place where hope is no longer a realistic option. The desperation and anger that comes from abject poverty threatens to overcome many of the characters, but others stubbornly refuse to yield, finding ways to survive that won’t kill them by degree. The importance of family, and of the desire to do what is right, is at the core of the story, and of Brown Bottle himself. While reading I was filled with a sense of foreboding but also with a sense of hope, knowing that things would likely end well for some and not for others, because that’s what tragedy is.
Compton’s Appalachia is a place of stunning beauty, but he understands that showing us only the beauty of a place makes a story incomplete, why it is necessary to also see the ugliness in order to truly understand it. This is a place that is being destroyed by poverty and the ravages of drugs, two things that so often are inextricably linked. Despite the hopelessness many of the characters face, they never stop trying to recapture a life that is forever gone.
Here, one of the central characters looks back on his life as a child: “It was a summer night, the kind that can become perfect from the stars in the sky to the blades of grass around your feet. The two of them barely made it through a few drinks of the shine, but that didn’t matter. The rooftop of the shack was another world for them. From the top, they could see the light on in the living room of the house, meaning their mother was still awake, reading the bible as she always did of the evenings. All other windows in the house were dark, meaning their father had retired for the night. It was a time they felt safe, even though they were getting drunk right there at their own home.” Hardly an idyllic childhood, but Compton somehow manages to make it seem as if it were.
He doesn’t, however, shy away from the realities of addiction. “The boy,” he writes, in a scene where Nick, Ward’s nephew, is in danger of overdosing, “lay across a mattress on the floor. Beside him was a dinner plate with pill powder still stuck to sections, covering part of one petal from the design of hearts and roses. It was one of their mother’s plates. Many suppers off that plate, and now this. The thought of it ran over Stan and he charged the bed and shook the boy by the shoulders, his head whipping back and then forward, powder flying from his nostrils as he came to and opened his eyes.”
Compton plants the reader firmly in a place he knows well, and he does so on every page. “The town,” he writes, “was never truly quiet. There was a buzz, something electric going all the time. Streetlights, a piece of machinery at the truck garage across from the gas station, a low hum that seemed to come off the pavement, like the sun had pressed hard into it during the day and the heat sizzled up to the surface to join all that low sound. Sometimes it was hardly more than an occasional rattle from a Pepsi machine at the corner of the American Electric Power building.” After reading this passage, the small town is no longer simply a place; it has become a character all its own.
Here, in a single sentence, the reader can see the connection between past and present: “The dark morning air smelled of vodka, sour mash and, faintly, old wood gone soft with years of rain soaking through the bark and into the ageless soil and rocks beneath the roots.”
And here: “Nick moved away from the patch made from the bonfire, through a small collection of young trees, to the cliff no more than fifty feet or so out from the clearing. A low fog covered everything below, leaving but three or four mountaintops visible. The valley cradling the areas of Flatwoods and Big Fork was an ocean now and the mountaintops strangely colored icebergs. As the top ridge breeze kicked up, the fog moved like the slow motion waves of the sea. Nick looked out to the farthest tip of mountain in the distance and imagined it was an island, imagined living there and never speaking, never getting to know a single soul.”
The imagery throughout is wonderful: Guns N’ Roses turned up loud; red cherry whiskey; a cigarette shaken loose from a hard pack; marijuana growing in the middle of a cornfield, hidden between the tall yellow stalks, an elderly farmer working in his garden nearby. The juxtaposition between the two generations is startling: the opportunities afforded the elders who grew up in a different time, no longer available to the young who are forced to adjust the only way they know how. “Mountain folks,” Sheldon writes, “are nothing if not industrious.”
Brown Bottle is a violent story, yet one in which humanity somehow manages to shine. Compton has crafted a work of great beauty and great tragedy. Not an easy feat, but what a pleasure to read.
Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.