Somewhat ironically The Daily Sabbatical has all but disappeared during my semester long sabbatical in NYC, but I haven’t stopped reading, and I’ve just finished a book that more people should know about. It’s a collection of three novellas, by Josh Weil, grouped under the title The New Valley. Weil recently was named on of the “top five under thirty-five” by the National Book Foundation, and if any of the other four have written books nearly as good, American Letters is in good hands.
Each of Weil’s three stories, which run from 83 to 150 pages, is a well crafted study of a character playing out, in all imperfection, the cards dealt to him in a small valley of rural Virginia. In the first, and shortest tale, “Ridge Weather,” we move with Osby through the days after his father’s suicide as he uneasily discovers that the silent rails set down by his relationship with his father begin to disappear. In some ways, this is a difficult introduction to the collection, as it takes a while before the quiet and awkward Osby begins to take real shape. But in retrospect, it is an important initiation into to the collection because it introduces us so thoroughly to the land and the concerns that seem to grow organically out of the valley itself. This pays huge dividends in the second and third novellas, which occupy neighboring landscapes, as the characters begin to come to the fore more powerfully with the reader having a taste and implicit understanding of the world around them.
The second tale, Stillman Wing, shows the writer beginning to flex his muscles a bit. Stillman Wing, whose name sounds like it could itself designate a brand of farm equipment, is finding his retirement years embodied by the slow, patient reconstruction of a Deutz tractor. The days and years slide by as the concern of his machine is matched only by his concern for his own aging body, while the more human relationships—such as that with his willful obese daughter—fail to yeild to the deliberative tinkering that rebuild the Deutz.
In my opinion, the third novella, “Sarverville Remains” is the book’s masterpiece. Here Weil leaves the sort of stoic, spare description of characters from the outside, and moves into the first-person voice of Geoffrey, who is a man-child of limited intellect but with increasing emotional sophistication. The novella is in the form of an extended letter or diary, written by Geoffrey to the man who has been imprisoned for savagely beating him to near death. As the diary continues, the events slowly filter through Geoffrey’s perceptions until the unsavory circumstances behind the beating are revealed.
All in all, The New Valley is an exceptional book. The novella has trouble finding an audience, nowadays, being too long for The New Yorker and too short for single bound release. It is an art form, every bit as valid as the short story, that for reasons of economy seems to be at risk of extinction. More power, then, to Josh Weil who makes his debut with this collection, earning him comparisons in my mind to Jim Harrison and John Casey, as well as to that champion of the hopeless, George Saunders.