The Rope Swing by Jonathan Corcoran
Vandalia/West Virginia University Press, 2016; 144 pp
REviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Accounts of LGBT individuals in Appalachia are not often told as they are in Jonathan Corcoran’s stellar story collection The Rope Swing, and that’s a shame, because the perspective of gay Appalachia in particular is a very specific story of survival in a region more or less defined by survival stories. Compact and intimate with an array of protagonists, gay and straight, young and old, Swing is filled with fearless, tender portraits of life in a region that, like the rest of the country, is making its stumbling way through the 21st century.
Swing’s setting is a former rail town in West Virginia, within a few hours’ drive of Pittsburgh and Washington D.C.—like many rural locales, its primary definition of place seems to be its distance from the nearest metropolitan area—fluctuating between boom and bust, wounded by the stoppage of the train service that gave it life and population, and somewhat bolstered by the addition of a new highway. Corcoran’s details give just the right note of life in a small town, the everyday nuances of places between 500 and 5,000 people, where the social epicenter is often Walmart, and a sense of isolation—not always geographic, as popularized depictions of Appalachia suggest, but cultural, and specifically cultures of gender and sexuality—is an issue. “We heard the important news from our neighbors,” it is said early in the collection, “old women who listened to scanners, memorized police codes, and picked up the phone faster than the paper could print words.” The closeness can be prohibitive. When two men connect on a dating site in “Through the Still Hours,” they drive to an adjacent town to meet; the narrator maintains that people “drive that far because they’re tired of being seen. Like the preacher said at church when I was growing up, “Someone’s always watching you.” God, or that old woman who lives next door.”
The Rope Swing cuts closest to its own heart when illuminating the delicate balance between the public and the private in those forced to live double lives. Characters often encounter transformation navigating their physical environment, eyes made new by revelation. In the book’s titular story, a young man finds new meaning in his town’s river when he begins covertly meeting another man there, discovering his own, latent sexuality and his ensuing panic. “He is a split self: his visible body and his hidden body.”
Most strikingly, Swing demonstrates, with startling clarity, the constant, latent hostility that punctuates this experience. There are stunning displays of sexual aggression, including the frequency with which the guy with the most machismo will clandestinely make a pass at the object of his scorn: “That’s the standard around here, be it in a bathroom or on the Internet,” a character reflects after such an encounter in a store restroom. “When I refuse … I’m never sure if they’re going to burst into tears or pummel me. I’ve stopped trying to make sense of it. It happens once a week at least.”
Yet the mystery of heritage is hard at work: Years after leaving West Virginia for the liberating anonymity of New York City, a Swing character marvels at what has been lost. “Now what he knows of that long-ago place is like a taste memory. He’ll catch a smell of wild onion in a restaurant, and then he’s on his hands and knees in the woods behind his house, digging for roots.”
The hard details, while not the easiest to read, are necessary, the life force that gives these stories their pulse. The Rope Swing challenges the reader to inhabit the lives of others, lives bound inextricably to ours by the mutual fragility that links all.