Image of covers

Reading Notes: Weedeater by Robert Gipe

Earlier this year, I posted some thoughts on Trampoline, the first in a related set of books by Robert Gipe. I recently finished the second book Weedeater, and I’d like to share a few thoughts again. This won’t be a review or plot summary, so if you want to know more about the book, check out the publisher’s site: https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Weedeater

Dawn, the narrator of the first novel, takes turn narrating this time with a new character nicknamed Weedeater. I was glad at first to pick up Dawn’s story again, but that started to be a reason for me to postpone finishing this book. Though Trampoline by no means paints an optimistic portrait of the hardships faced in this Kentucky community, there were at least some flickers of hope that Dawn would find a path forward. Those flickers were extinguished in this novel, some quickly, some slowly. There was still a thread of humor and an appreciative eye for the land and the people that makes these books well worth the time, but I had to let go of some of my unrealistic expectations in order to finish reading.

The character of Weedeater was a gift, though. I am not sure I know how to describe him well. He is in some ways pathetic, bearing lasting physical and emotional wounds, in some ways comical, at least due to some of the situations he lands himself in and the reactions he discloses to the reader. He’s also lovable and appealing, even if he could be seen as the type who blends into the shadows of everyday life. I especially like how honest he is in his assessment of others and himself. He seems to me both broken and wholly innocent.

By the end of this second book, I feel so protective of these people, ravaged by addictions to coal and OxyContin, and it occurs to me these industries are what fund Senators Paul and McConnell, two politicians who work so very hard to do nothing for the people they are supposed to represent.

There are many zigs and zags in this book, major and minor events that echo the lack of control over their lives many of the characters experience. The scene that stands out the most for me is when Weedeater spends a day working in the coal mine, and Gipe helps us peek at a past and present almost unimaginable, one almost unbearable to experience.

As I neared the end of the book, it occurred to me that many parts could just as easily work as a poem. That may give you the wrong impression. Some novels are full of heavy prose, and that’s not the way this feels. It has its pragmatic moments, and a gritty humor balanced with a relentless sense of loss. But it was moving to hear the poetry singing underneath the story.

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.