Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky
by David Connerley Nahm
Two Dollar Radio, 2014
192 pages, $16
Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias
Mashing genres together is not challenging even for mediocre authors. However, crafting a narrative in which the best elements from a plethora of genres are present, clearly identifiable, and don’t overpower one another is a very different and much more complicated mission. In Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, author David Connerley Nahm pulls off a beautiful merging of genres and delivers a creepy, playful, and superbly-written novel that bravely ignores the line between past and present and explores how memories can subdue current events and become all-consuming leviathans.
Leah Shepherd runs a nonprofit organization that works with victims of domestic violence. Her life is relatively uncomplicated and seems to be full, consisting of her commute, her work, and a plethora of meetings. However, Leah inhabits two times simultaneously—the past and present. While dealing with her everyday existence, she’s also haunted by the memories of a strange childhood and a brother who went missing. The narrative constantly shifts between past and present and shows how the former overshadows the latter, and that overriding only serves to magnify the significance of a call Leah receives and which might mean the past is about to collide with the present.
Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is a strange hybrid. While the prose is clearly imbedded in literary fiction, it also ventures out into genre territory by morphing into a variety of forms that range from horror to thriller and from comedy to something new and very rhythmic that seems to only comparable to the jazz-infused prose of the Beats. Nahm is a very talented writer, and what he does here is show that a debut author shouldn’t be afraid to flex a wide variety of muscles.
The first element that stands out in this novel is the elegance with which the author approaches the commonplace. Descriptions are never too long, but they are often rich enough to become both a profound analysis and a celebration of whatever is being discussed:
Summer comes to Kentucky as a shock, as though it was impossible for the land to ever be green and full again. Magnolias with swollen white petals sway in warm breezes, record-high humid air fills lungs like warm water and the invisible mechanism that animates everything slows as summer’s heavy thumb rests on its ancient belts.
Besides the elegant prose, Nahm has a talent for playing with time and manages to never lose the reader despite the fact that he has no regard for chronological order. Also, while Leah’s current self is not a very interesting character, the ghosts that haunt her, the vivid details of her past, the pain that refuses to diminish, and the fact that her brother could be alive somewhere are more than enough to turn her into a likable character through which the author explores pain, family, the role of memory, and fear.
While the attention to detail, the author’s command of the language, and the fact that the narrative successfully eschews traditional storytelling would be enough to make Ancient Oceans an outstanding debut, the plethora of suspenseful passages, oddly rhythmic prose that encapsulating places and scenes within memories, and the eerie atmospheres conjured time and again make this one the kind of debut that demands to be considered the arrival of a powerful new voice.
The old buildings, the paths of the college, the young milling and darting. The young in tangles. Clumps. Weaving. A girl’s French braid amiss, strands threaded wrong, hairs pulled apart, out and tangled. The braid ruined from being rolled on. The arms in legs in arms and arms. The lithe writing. Forgetting. Cars and cars and they looked but those that passed on foot found interest in the gutter. She stomped and stepped and waited at the crosswalks to pass. The passing booms of bass. The petals of treble The muffled words. The courthouse looms behind the garden. The bell tower. Hands. Long black. Nearly pointing to God.
Childhood trauma is fertile terrain for fiction, but finding fresh ideas and unique voices plowing that field is a rare occurrence. David Connerley Nahm is the kind of author who understands that the way a story is told is as crucial as the story itself, and in this novel he demonstrates that the best literary fiction can still benefit from an injection of genre elements. Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is a thrilling, valiantly bizarre debut, and it should place its author on the radar of everyone who’s interested in unique fiction that celebrates language and isn’t afraid to break new ground when it comes to rhythm and time.