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Arts & Culture

Moving Toward The Light From 'The Underworld'

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Master storyteller Kevin Canty returns with "The Underworld," a lyrical, haunting novel about a hardscrabble small town in Idaho and the disaster that comes to define it. Inspired by a disastrous mine fire in the early 1970s, "The Underworld" gracefully imagines a community shattered, and ultimately altered and rebuilt, by tragedy.

"Canty does a fine job of showing how disaster can lacerate a place or people without utterly destroying hope.”

— Kirkus Reviews

The story begins as David, a college student in Montana who has managed to escape his tiny hometown, is returning to Idaho to attend a wedding. There we meet all the central players in this gripping tale: Ray, David’s older brother, along with Ray’s wife and their twin babies; Ann, a bright young woman who believes she could have left the state for a more promising future but chose the more easily laid-out path of marrying a young miner and trying to start a family. Most of the town revolves around the mine—David’s brother and father both work there —and around the local bar, Uncle Buck’s, where secrets are shared and hoarded. David, having left his hometown, feels like an outsider in the community that raised him: “All this not-knowing makes David uneasy, makes him feel that he is navigating the world with insufficient information. Everybody else knows. Everybody but him.”

When a shaft fire hits the mine, the town of Silverton is thrown into chaos. David is summoned back from college again, this time to wait on word about his father and his brother, both missing. Also missing is Ann’s husband, as well as another frequent visitor of the local bar, Lyle, a divorcee, who is also a frequent visitor to the local whorehouse. As practically the whole town gathers outside the mines, they are joined by reporters and waiting emergency teams. “No news and no news and then a scrap of news and then no news. The sun is warm on [David’s] bare arms and the day full of promise and joy, the first real spring day,” writes Canty, deftly capturing the tension between the beautiful day and the darkness literally underneath it all.

The devastating wait to find out who has lived, who remains trapped, and who might emerge, combined with the enhanced toils of small-town life, forms the core of "The Underworld". David debates whether he should give up his pursuit of a college degree and take a blue-collar job and move back to Idaho. Lyle’s mind wanders back to his second ex-wife, wondering if they could ever make a go of things again. Ann escapes to the Oregon coast with her deaf younger sister: “And the ocean. She was right about the ocean. The wind and waves and roar drive all the thoughts out of her mind and leave her empty.”

With remarkable attention to detail that makes small-town life come vividly alive, and with a spellbinding prose that makes it impossible to put the book down until its heart-stopping conclusion, Kevin Canty’s "The Underworld" is a major literary achievement.

Credit Author Photo, Dax Photography
Kevin Canty

Kevin Canty is the author of four novels and three short story collections and has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and the New York Times Magazine. He currently teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula.

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