Furnass is “a typical midwestern Pennsylvania mill town,” according to Richard Snodgrass’s website. Except it exists only in The Books of Furnass, an eight-volume series chronicling the town’s history from the aftermath of the French and Indian War through the late 20th century. HOLDING ON is the latest in the series, a linked collection of stories set between 1952 and 1986.
The stories contained HOLDING ON evoke Stephen King at his most nostalgic: elaborate set pieces of some bygone era in mill-town America. They share a location but not characters, though at least some of them probably appear in other books in the series. Some stories are fully-formed; others seem like beginnings that are later abandoned. In “Flowers of the Forest,” a young boy gets an introduction to sex, then to violence, learning, perhaps, how the two can spring from the same source. “Making Do” explores how a pretty young visitor shakes up a family’s dynamic. The best of the bunch is “Larry-Berry,” for the wit of its narrator, and its light-hearted twist to the age-old problem of a troubled marriage.
The stories explore familiar themes: loneliness, confusion, coming of age, the weight of history, small-town violence. Humor arises naturally from situations, though there are some good one-liners, such as Larry-Berry’s observation “I was afraid she’d lose her balance and fall on me and make me as one-sided as a nickel.” There are a few questionable decisions. Readers may be confused by the similarly named Bob Binder and Bob Bodner. And nobody in western Pennsylvania would call his mother “mum.” Between stories are italicized interludes of a pair of explorers in 1764, when the area was overgrown and unsettled. These vignettes add little to HOLDING ON, which without them would be an heir to Winesburg, Ohio. With them, it feels like an MFA thesis. Yet the time period marks the beginning of Snodgrass’s larger story, which would surely suffer from these episodes’ exclusion.
Witty and poignant, and occasionally ribald, HOLDING ON is a worthy addition to Richard Snodgrass’s epic tales of a town in America’s heartland.
~Anthony Aycock for IndieReader