In Josh Weil’s The New Valley, a collection of three novellas, we meet three solitary men, each in their own unique fog of grief. The rural Virginia they have always known is transforming around them, dreamlike. The most reliable of landmarks, the rivers and farms and gas stations, come to symbolize something new—the desire to be seen, the fear of being dispensable. The characters and their environment are interdependent; they change each other. In this and other ways, Weil’s work echoes Winesburg, Ohio.
This valley was a place of homes scattered far from homes, and meant to be that way, of lives built around cattle more than conversation, timed to rhythms of the crops, not the need to keep pace with other people’s heartbeats. This was a place where people knew how to keep apart.
The most accomplished feat of this debut is how intricately these profoundly flawed characters are imagined. These three lonely men are not your typical protagonists. They are poor communicators, to say the least—men whose voices are rarely heard, because they won’t, or can’t, speak out. So how does one give voice to someone who refuses to talk? Weil handles this by forcing the reader to sit in a room, or a field, with a man who doesn’t want to be sat with, to stare at a face that’s never been watched, to listen to someone who’s never known he has anything in him worth voicing. This sensation is most apparent in the first, and quietest, novella, “Ridge Weather.” It feels, at times, as if Weil is acting as mediator, a therapist who knows what’s best for the character and the reader. This sometimes calls for a great deal of readerly patience. But by the time we follow Osby to the room where his father shot himself, this patience has paid off and we are able to see what Osby sees, taking in the “pieces of bone and brain under the wire springs of the empty cot,” the children’s clothes strewn on the floor, the smell of his grandmother’s rat-chewed sheets.
Though the middle novella, “Stillman Wing,” may not be as cohesive as its bookends, this is the piece in which Weil flexes his craft-muscles. The time-lapse sections are as brilliant as a Spike Lee sequence. (In the hands of a lesser writer, this technique would have become a gimmick.) As Stillman Wing spends years repairing a tractor as old as he, his body begins to fall apart—the body he’s tried to maintain through seaweed and meditation—until he ends up in as decrepit a condition as he found the tractor. Could we have stayed with Stillman, working with him in his shed, for another year or two? Probably not—and that is why this novella is not a novel. Weil knows his form, when and where to pull back. The page crunch, for him, seems to be a generative limitation.
We spend so much time in the characters’ heads, that we don’t blink an eye when Osby convinces himself he needs to fix his date’s propane rather than be with her, or when Stillman thinks of his daughter as one thinks of a wife, “picturing those far-off years when they would begin to grow old together.” There is no “normal” here in the valley, no standard to rub up against. What is created in these pages is the new normal. But it isn’t until the third and last story that this question is asked directly. What is normal? Is normal what we want?
The book builds in energy and speed, preparing us for the last novella, “Sarverville Remains.” Geoffrey, a man who is referred to by others as “diminished,” is the only first-person narrator in the book, as if we finally earned this ownership of identity—though Geoffrey is only able to find his “I” through the act of writing a letter to the husband of the woman he loves. He says he becomes a new man by being known by others—not unlike the reader’s relationship with him. “Sometimes a person can’t know hisself till someone else figures him out, and then he got to look at who’s figured him and see in her what she knows before he can know it too.”
Just as Osby is abandoned by his father, and Stillman by his parents and daughter, Geoffrey is abandoned not only by the woman “who’s figured him,” but by the truth. The connective theme of truth-in-flux is brought to the surface in this last novella. Though Geoffrey has the capacity to remember conversations verbatim, the facts are still in question. He is the best kind of unreliable narrator—we end up wishing his version of reality was the authentic one, and that he could continue to believe in it. In all three stories, the characters are trying to find their personal truth in the past, and its consequence in the present. For these men, the past has a way of seeping into the present, through Osby’s hay bales and Stillman’s airplanes, and, finally, in Geoffrey’s attempt to rewrite the myth of his history by returning to it physically, up in the hills.
Though the characters have a hard time speaking on their own behalf, the novellas speak to one another. There are moments when Geoffrey is almost in dialogue with Stillman and Osby: “I know I ain’t the first to miss somebody. Sometimes I look at everyone what comes to fill up their tank and I think, Who do you miss? And, Who do you miss? And, Who do you miss?” Or, perhaps, Geoffrey is asking us. Weil’s empathy for his characters is contagious, so that, when you close the book, the answer to Geoffrey’s question is: them.