Between the World Cup, emails, and binge-watching Netflix, the chances are pretty great that we’re spending a little too much time staring at a screen. But it looks like we’re seeing a break in the stream. Soccer matches are happening now at the rate of roughly one per day as the end of the tournament nears. Summer movies have been fairly unremarkable as far as we can tell, and it looks like there’s a pause in the television lineup. Unfortunately, it looks like emails will continue forever without interruption. It’s a brave new world, folks. Anyhow, it looks like now is as good a time as any to catch up on some reading. It turns out that Richmond, Virginia has some fairly notable works associated with it. Here is a trio of books that cover our hometown.
Kevin Powers – The Yellow Birds
Kevin Powers was born and raised in Richmond. At seventeen he enlisted in the U.S. Army and a few years later, found himself serving a one-year tour in Iraq as a machine gunner. This experience became the foundation for his gripping debut novel, The Yellow Birds.
The Yellow Birds follows the lives of two army privates, protagonist and anti-hero John Bartle and Daniel Murphy. We learn that the two have been bound together since basic training and watch as their relationship is challenged in the fight to stay alive during the war. Bartle assumes the role of big brother for the younger Murphy and finds himself acting as Murphy’s protector in increasing tragic circumstances. In the tradition of modern war novels, the story takes place on two fronts: Bartle’s confrontation with the dark realities of war, and coping with those realities when he returns home to rural Virginia.
This novel is a standout in the emerging genre of contemporary war fiction and one of the finest books to come out of the Iraqi conflict. Critics have compared The Yellow Birds to Tim O’Brien’s excellent work on the war in Vietnam, The Things They Carried. Powers’ honest and bold work puts the reader right in the middle of a vivid and haunting experience.
William Styron – Lie Down in Darkness
Newport News-born William Styron is one of the greatest Southern authors that you most likely have never heard of. Published in 1951, Styron’s debut novel, Lie Down in Darkness, is a masterpiece of Southern storytelling. The novel begins and ends on the day of a funeral and centers around the dysfunctional Loftis family. Readers travel back and forth in time through the course of the novel with omniscience access to the character’s thoughts and perspectives.
What sets this book apart from many works of Southern fiction is that it’s an in-depth character study into the human psyche. The story traces the painful unraveling of the Virginian Loftis family: Milton, the alcoholic patriarch of the family; his wife Helen, the child of an affluent family; and Maudie and Peyton, their two daughters.
Not only is Lie Down In Darkness a well-crafted story and portrait, the Richmond references alone are worth the journey. Styron sets some of the most intense scenes at the Country Club of Virginia. And it’s not often that the opening paragraph of such a seminal work as this one occurs on the train trestle stretching across the James River.
“Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever-present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rows of uniformly brown clapboard houses which stretch down the hilly street for miles, the hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn . . .”
Walter S. Griggs, Jr. – The Collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel
I had the pleasure of having Prof. Griggs as a law and ethics professor while in college at VCU. At that time, he was in the midst of his research for his 2011 novel, The Collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel.
Richmond’s railways were the lifeline of Reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Church Hill Tunnel was an important link in this system, and when the city decided to renovate the tunnel in 1925, 190 feet of the tunnel unexpectedly caved in – trapping construction workers and an entire locomotive inside. After unsuccessful attempts to rescue the people trapped inside, the city decided to wall the openings.
The work focuses on the Church Hill neighborhood, a historic district in Richmond’s East End. We profiled the neighborhood’s revitalization a few months ago on our blog.