A professional gambler named Abe Baach and his girlfriend Goldie Toothman, who owns a local brothel, are the main characters in a new novel by Glenn Taylor. The novel, called A Hanging at Cinder Bottom, is set in McDowell County’s “red light district” of Keystone during the turn of the 19th century.
Like his first novel, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, Glenn Taylor’s latest book weaves imagination, history and tall tales into a story that feels like it was dreamed up late at night around a campfire. During the boom days of coal, places like Keystone were said to have their fair share of shoot outs, card players and red light districts. A hundred years ago, characters came to McDowell County by horse or by train from all over the world.
Taylor is a native of Huntington, West Virginia, but his father grew up in Matewan, where a lot of those stories were told -- mostly by men.
Glenn: I think as a kid growing up, you’re always going to be around uncles and other acquaintances who make jokes about folks who had "gone down to Keystone for the weekend.”
And it became clear at a certain age that what they were talking about were whorehouses, or houses of ill fame, if we want to sound a little bit more proper. I was born in 1975, and there are some who will tell you that you could still entertain that kind of notion all the way up though, maybe the 80s. And so I kind of heard about it as a kid. I don’t think I paid much attention. And of course was just innocent as could be. I’m just kidding. But I’ve heard about it for quite some time.
Roxy: Your heroes in the novel, basically take on the rich villains who run Keystone. Why’d you decide to pit these characters that have been taken advantage of against the millionaires?
Glenn: I think part of it has to do with I’m a sucker, like many readers and writers, for a good underdog story. I think I always have been. I think it maybe is generated among those of us who are born and raised in West Virginia and then who leave the state, and you kind of have an underdog mentality perhaps.
Part of it is probably also because, I’ll just go ahead and say it, I’ve never been very good at plot. And so the long con was a way for me to kind of keep myself on track. I had them take on the powers that be in a very calculated way because that helped me calculate how to write the book.
And speaking of the structure of the book, I actually had to go back in time for chapter two, all the way to 1877, to show how Abe’s father, Al Baach, first came to town from Baltimore, having only recently arrived in Baltimore from Germany. And so, here his first night in town, he’s watching Rutherford, the embalmer and so called chief of police, who has a terrible fear of snakes, towing a coffin out of town.
At midnight, drunk, he watched Rutherford trot his horse out of town with a fresh-cut coffin in tow, the rig drawing lines in the dirt. He stood in the dark with Trent, a lantern on the ground between them.
Rutherford winced at the buggy seat's unforgiving springs. He muttered about there being not enough moonlight to see. He gave a wave as he passed below the balcony veranda of a long-roofed house. The two men perched up there did not wave in return. They leaned in slat-back chairs, their feet propped on the balustrade. They were the Beavers brothers. They liked to think they saw everything from their high covered domicile.
Trent could see their cigar tips glowing. He watched his man pass beneath. He watched Harold Beavers lean sidewise in his chair and take something from a covered basket on the porch floor.
Harold stood up clutching a pair of writhing black rat snakes. He leaned over the rail and aimed and tossed the snakes upon the passing Rutherford.
One landed on his shoulder, the other on the swell of his trail saddle. He screamed as a small child would scream and he pulled free his boots from their stirrups and leapt to the ground, where he clawed at the mud, pulling himself from the scene, panting in the high notes of a woman in labor. The Beavers brothers laughed as hard as they had in months, and so too did Henry Trent as he watched from afar. When he'd understood what he'd seen, Al Baach followed suit, chuckling uncomfortable at what evidently passed for humor in his new environs.
Rutherford stood up and drew his lengthy sidearm and shot both snakes dead where they'd slithered against the ditch wall. His horse just stood there, long since gunbroke. Rutherford did not look up at the Beavers brothers where they roared, nor did he turn to regard Henry Trent. He holstered his pistol and climbed back aboard by way of an extra-long fender, and he rode off in the quarter moon dark.
Roxy: Of course this book takes place in the early 1900s, during the boom times, And those boom years, as you said, are really gone from McDowell County and Keystone. Is this book trying to rekindle any kind of story from the past, or trying to bring some hope or revitalization to that area?
Glenn: I think so. And maybe that’s just pie in the sky type of thinking, and I certainly want to make clear that I don’t presume to know what is the best way to honor the stories of the people from the past, or the people living there now, as you said, in McDowell county. And I don’t have family from there, and I didn’t grow up there. But I suppose, I think the reason I dedicated the book to the people of McDowell County is cause I was doing a lot of thinking about what does it mean, a book dedication, I had dedicated my first two, to my wife with the first one, and to my three sons with the second one, and by the time I was writing this one I realized maybe you don’t always have to dedicate a book to family members. Maybe you can dedicate it to the people who live in the place you’re writing about.
And so though I want to be very careful not to take someone else’s experience and try and make it something that it’s not, what I hope is that the book will just spur and interest in readers to think about places that unfortunately some folks now think of as “sacrifice zones”, comfortably, as if it’s just ok that we’ve sacrificed them, because I do think that it’s such an interesting and alive place like McDowell County, which generated so much money in the coal and railroad industries to build this country, I do think it’s a little odd that they’ve been left high and dry as they have, not just by big coal, but by the public consciousness, and maybe in some way by governmental intervention and aid that hasn’t gone quite as it should have. So I just hope that it will generate some interest in general, and then people can do as they want with that interest.
Glenn Taylor is a fiction writer and he teaches creative writing at West Virginia University. His new novel is called A Hanging at Cinder Bottom.