Reviews — From the July 2014 issue

Strange Loop

Robert Coover returns to realism

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Discussed in this essay:

The Brunist Day of Wrath, by Robert Coover. Dzanc Books. 1,100 pages. $30.


One evening in December 1951, a coal mine in southern Illinois combusted and collapsed. An observer later remarked that it looked as if a bomb had been dropped into a subway. A chance spark or cigarette had lit a pocket of marsh gas, and fire flooded the mine’s vasculature, splintering timbers, overturning heavy machinery, and bending steel rails into fishhooks. The men closest to the blast were carbonized. Those farther away felt only a warm wind and an uncomfortable pressure in their ears as the tunnels went black.

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

The Orient No. 2 explosion was the deadliest the country had seen in decades. Some 120 men were entombed. Within hours the blocked tunnels began filling with carbon monoxide; rescuers recalled the sight of pigeons roosting in the mine’s elevator shaft dropping dead. The trapped men curtained themselves off from the gas (a technique called bratticing) and awaited rescue, but many knew it would not come in time. They wrote farewell notes to their families on cigarette packages, cough-drop boxes, whatever they could find. (“I love you all way. I go tonight with Christ. I love Him too.”) A group of about a dozen men poured water on the dirt and buried their heads in it, hoping to escape the gas.

After three days of rescue efforts, all those inside the mine were presumed dead. Then, on Christmas Eve, 550 feet underground, rescue workers wearing gas masks found a survivor lying among the dead. His name was Cecil Sanders, a sickly and by all reports pious man. From his hospital bed, Sanders sang “Amazing Grace” for a national radio audience. He told reporters that “nobody but God had anything to do” with his rescue, which he called “a miracle.” (Doctors speculated that his many years spent in the mine had gradually accustomed his body to the gas.)

A few miles away, the junior high school basketball court was converted into a morgue. Bodies were brought in and laid out on the floor to be identified. Blood seeped into the wood; the smell was “terrific,” remembered one witness. A nineteen-year-old reporter named Robert Coover, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, sat in the bleachers taking notes. Home from college on break, he had agreed to help out the paper his father managed, the Herrin Daily Journal, which was short-staffed. His assignment was to transcribe the names of the dead.

Every great writer, it seems, has a formative horror. For some it is a war, an illness, an abuse, an abandonment, a death. For Coover it was an explosion. The scrabbling for meaning that followed the disaster — the rumors, the prayer vigils, the journalists picking over the wreckage — gave him a riddle he has spent his career unraveling: How are myths made, and how can they be unmade?

Coover’s first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, published in 1966, centered on the lone survivor of a coal-mining disaster. It established Coover’s reputation as an author of gritty and ambitious social-realist novels. Coover once told an interviewer for The Antioch Review that he wrote The Origin in a conventional style “thinking that it might be the last piece of my writing read by a general public.” His true passion lay in composing the crumbly, self-aware novels and short stories that would later be labeled metafiction. The Origin was meant to be his Meet The Beatles!, a sacrifice laid at the feet of the American marketplace before he could drop acid and make Sgt. Pepper’s.

The book was not a bestseller, but it garnered critical praise. John Gardner — who would later call Coover a “closet fascist” on account of his fervent (but decidedly unfascistic) insistence that truth is constructed and relative — deemed The Origin “brilliant” and “superb.” The William Faulkner Foundation agreed, giving Coover its 1966 award for best first novel, which Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy had won in preceding years.

“The strength of this novel derives from the old traditions,” wrote Webster Schott in the New York Times. “It brings us the news about mining, petty journalism, small-town nonculture and the weird fusion of truth and wish that sometimes underpins religious belief.” Schott predicted: “If he can somehow control his Hollywood giganticism and focus his vision of life, he may become heir to Dreiser or Lewis.”

In the nineteen books that followed, Coover made a mockery of this advice. His subsequent work was brilliantly unfocused and antirealist. And in contrast to the ice-flat nouveaux romans coming out of France, Coover’s novels were feverish, lewd, and most of all funny. According to the novelist Hari Kunzru, Coover

broke open the carapace of postwar American realism to reveal a fantastical funhouse of narrative possibilities. His relentless experimentalism, combined with a sly and often bawdy humour, have made him a writer’s writer, a hero to those who feel smothered by the marshmallowy welter of pseudo-literary romance that dominates contemporary fiction.

In April, Coover surprised his readers once again, by publishing a sequel to his first novel. It marks a return not only to the mining town where he grew up but also to the traditional style he long ago abandoned.

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lives in British Columbia and New York City. He is writing a book of essays about trails, due out next year from Simon & Schuster.

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