Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014; 288 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Officer Henry Farrell patrols the town of Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, a fictional community nestled in the hills outside of Scranton. You wouldn’t find much in this hamlet, now overrun by fracking wells and full of distrusting neighbors prepared to pull out a shotgun on you before they deliver their greeting. Jobs run scarce, and the local drug trade has worsened thanks to a rise in heroin and methamphetamines. On the morning that opens Tom Bouman’s debut novel Dry Bones in the Valley, Henry discovers a decaying body back in the woods. The investigation into the identity of this unrecognizable corpse sets in motion one of the blander crime thrillers I’ve read in some time.
Before levelling my complaints Tom Bouman’s way, I only feel it fair to credit it him in the areas where I consider him an exceptional craftsman: the depiction of his regional setting. Rural noir like Dry Bones in the Valley make or break at the author’s ability to capture his or her setting and build compelling drama from the flavor of that backdrop. Even as I struggled to maintain interest through the turgid, uneventful pages of this book, my frustration waned each time the author took a step back to capture the authenticity of this community decaying thanks to outside forces. Bouman brings some Southern Gothic flavor to the northeast, dipping into the lives of families who have spent generations on land that divides them more than it unites. The leisure and romantic notions of Wild Thyme’s secluded landscape slowly reveals itself to be as threatening as the people who inhabit it.
Those qualities might work better had this book been a work of nonfiction about Pennsylvania towns struggling through economic turmoil and changing cultures, but those virtues serve as a distraction from the crime at the center of the book. I applaud any reader who can manage to stay invested in the machinations of the investigation as each successive chapter offer no new clues into the mystery before settling on a deus ex machina so whorishly clichéd that I recall my freshman writing professor in college rapping us across the knuckles if anyone used it. The reveal is a cheap device to graze over topical political issues in a manner I found exploitative and hackneyed. Bouman also uses fracking concerns in the region as a cheap red herring that serves more to proselytize than add to the plot. Again, a nonfiction book grappling with these concerns might have been more enlightening, though I imagine a fracking drama was a harder sell to his agent than a cop thriller.
Even as I horsewhip Dry Bones in the Valley with my complaints about the plotting and dramatic turns, I might have forgiven the offenses had I found something I could emotionally invest myself in besides the setting. Perhaps a three dimensional character would fit my needs. Well, unfortunately for me, for all the characters this book has, there sure isn’t enough of them. A reader could be forgiven if they couldn’t keep up with the various names and feuds that make up the community of Wild Thyme, especially if they were like myself and had to frequently flip to the book jacket just to refresh on who the main character was.
A novel like Dry Bones in the Valley needs a compelling protagonist to guide us through the escalating conflict, but Henry Farrell is not that character. Hell, the only defining characteristic comes from the way he’d prefer people call him by his first name and not address him as “Officer”. In the midst of his laborious narration, we learn very little about the man besides the fact that before he moved back to his childhood home in Wild Thyme, he served in the armed forces and drifted in the western half of the country, preferring the life of a loner. That information may reveal his solitary nature, though it offers little into his complete lack of a personality or why his late wife fell in love with him. Her existence and death by cancer in a late chapter flashback exist only to provide our protagonist with some halfhearted humanity and level more suspicions at the dangers of fracking, which he believes contributed to his wife’s death. You could say she died conveniently to teach us readers about fracking dangers, maybe, since the book won’t commit to making a statement on the matter.
Supporting characters don’t stand up much better than Officer Farrell…er…Henry, most defined by their level of hostility and what weapon they choose to use when they sneak up on Henry, a scenario repeated so often that I lost track as to whether I should find it comical or if Bouman ran out of ways to introduce scenes of conflict and exposition. I have hope that our author will find more dynamic drama to build up the bare frame of whatever novel he writes next, but I can’t find much to recommend with his debut work.