Book covers

Reading Notes: Pop by Robert Gipe

I finally finished Pop, the third book of the series by Robert Gipe, and am still sorting my thoughts on this book and the series as a whole. This story stands on its own, but is more powerful, I think, if you have read the first two books (Trampoline and Weedeater).

I should probably not talk about specific moments in this book because it might detract from your ability to appreciate the unpredictable twists and turns ahead. My favorite scene is when Uncle Hubert is talking in a cave…and really, to say any more is to spoil quite a bit, so I’ll stop there. I also liked how the the final scenes create a rising crescendo, placing this family’s stories into a deeper history of the region.

I was amused that it took me until I was 2/3 into the book when I figured out the title Pop was referring to the soda that Dawn’s daughter Nicolette produced, rather than directly speaking of a father figure (though given Uncle Hubert’s rise to something of a hero in this book, an indirect reference could well have been intended). It made me wonder why I never use the word pop to refer to soda, even though I grew up in the mountains of NC not too far as a crow flies from the setting of these books. I found a map that explained this to me—there seems to be a true border between my part of the mountains and theirs, one side says soda and the other says pop. https://ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/11/the-soda-vs-pop-map/. I It seems somehow typical that this drills down to tiny spots on the map, not even the entire region, and that distinctiveness seems fitting, resonant of what this series of books tries to convey about people and cultures not well understood by those outside.

Although soda was my main word for soda, I also grew up referring to soda as soft drinks, which even at the time I got some flack for, like I was using some Latin term for it or something. And I was now years old when I realized that the phrase soft drinks is probably in contrast to “hard drinks,” which is why I think it was a term I grew up with because I come from intellectuals who liked to party.

Anyway, my head is still spinning a bit from this book. Just like the first two, a lot happens. In terms of genre, I would consider this book literary fiction or possibly Appalachian literature if that’s a category, and it always strikes me that I tend to think of such fiction as different from genre fiction, which I consider plot-driven, which makes you think of “action.” Yet these categories elude such descriptions because there is so much action in this book. Even with so much going on, it is the characters that stand out, and the writing itself sings. You know, when I read genre fiction, I often keep reading to “find out what happens,” though it is true that I need to care about the characters. I’ve sampled a few books lately where I just couldn’t care about the characters, so even though I liked the plot concept, I had to put the book down. In Pop, I care so much about these characters that I agonize as I see some of the action ensue, worrying about what will happen to them.

After much heartbreak, this book ends on a high note, finally giving me a moment I had hoped for as I read the first book (a hope I had actually abandoned by the end of the second book).

One line I’d like to ponder: “Wildness ain’t the disease; wildness is the cure.” This narrative is wild, unruly, and unpredictable, dotted with glimpses of the natural beauty and challenges of life in Appalachia. The cure this book offers is what could happen when people come to know who they are and have the chance to be who they want to be.

snapshot of book cover

Reading Notes on Robert Gipe’s Trampoline

I’ve been finding time, or making time, to read more often, and my best friend gifted me with three books by Robert Gipe, set in a coal-mining mountain region somewhere in eastern Kentucky. By a crow’s flight, it’s likely not that far from where I live in western North Carolina. The first novel is Trampoline, narrated by fifteen-year-old Jewell, who describes herself as a “freak, soft and four-eyed, with black fingernail polish, a dead daddy, a drunk momma, a crackhead brother, outlaw uncles, and divorced grandparents who made trouble for normal people every time they come off the ridge” (p. 70). As I read, I kept noticing how the setting and characters felt both familiar and unknowable to me. His portrait of individuals ravaged by poverty and addiction is neither unforgiving nor forgiving. I came away with so much sympathy for people locked into roles in which they become a danger to others, themselves, and the land they love.

Reading this book makes me wonder if it is ever possible to portray the truth of any person’s life, especially one in a position of such vulnerability or powerlessness. But the glimpses of what could be true within this portrait makes me wonder about the lives of people I have sat beside in waiting rooms or passed in the grocery store, the many glimpses of people living in these mountains that I do not know, that I try to but sometimes cannot really see.

I especially savored Gipe’s many metaphors and similes. The narrator/protagonist describes the board members at a state hearing “like prizes at a carnival game, eyes wide and blank, stuffed pink monkeys, green hippopotamuses piled too close together” (p. 12). Eyes often get an extra dose of language, such as, “‘How old are you, Dawn?’ The room went quiet when Decent asked. Her eyes were two humming outboard motors pushing a boat across summer waters. I water-skied behind her outboard motor eyes, rope tight pulling me across a rough glass like under a paste-gray sky” (p. 99). Black and white sketches further add to the impact of this illustrated novel.

My favorite moment captures the feel of this book. Dawn jumps off a small cliff to “practice kill” herself, only to land on a drunken aunt. The family that pushes her to despair is also there to break her fall.

To be clear, it is a moment both sad and funny, and I had to pace myself reading this novel because I could never predict when the story would make me laugh or cry.