The New Valley: In Defense of Novellas - Book Review
At a Bennington Writing Seminars panel, I once heard author Josh Weil joke that he’d never made his agent a cent because he wrote novellas. Novellas, or, “little novels,” tend to get a bad rap, as if page count alone makes them a lesser art form than a full novel. They often feel less finished than their longer counterparts, less complete, perhaps, maybe more of a series of vignettes or connected pieces that haven’t been neatly tied up with a bow.
I would quantify Josh Weil’s statement with this: he writes really good novellas, which might not be making anyone any money but which certainly have their place in literature today and, I think, should be much more widely read. Weil’s collection of three unconnected novellas, The New Valley (Grove Press, 2009), seems to have not gotten the attention it deserves in the past 10 years, but are excellent reads, particularly “Sarverville Remains.” The New Valley was the first of Weil’s three books, which include the novel The Great Glass Sea and the short story collection The Age of Perpetual Light.
Each of The New Valley’s novellas centers around rural life in Virginia. In “Ridge Weather,” we follow a struggling farmer dealing with his father’s death and loneliness and keeping up the farm. “Stillman’s Wing” tells the story of an aging mechanic forced out of his job and seeking revenge, while dealing with the pain of watching his beloved daughter slowly killing herself. Each of these novellas details the harshness of living in poverty in Appalachia and the relationships built through dire circumstances.
“Sarverville Remains” tells the story of a mentally-challenged man trying to find love and acceptance in all the wrong places. He mistakenly believes himself to blame for destroying the marriage of the woman he falls for, who manipulates him and sets him up in order to get rid of her husband.
The reader understands more than the narrator does, which makes for a fun read as you piece together the truth from his limited view.
It’s the only of these three novellas told in the first-person perspective, which allows the reader to see the protagonist’s stunted point of view.
At Bennington, I heard Weil read the beginning of “Sarverville Remains” (in his best Appalachian accent, which he told us he could do because he’s from Virginia). He slowly drawled the narrator’s affected way of speaking. I was hanging on every word (which you should really hear him read, it’s the best way to read that book), and at some point realized, to my great disappointment, that he’d told us this was a novella and there was no way I would be hearing the ending at this reading. My friend Eddy and I agreed that we would gladly sit in that auditorium for hours and listen to Josh Weil read all night (I told Josh this afterward at the campus bar and he was very lovely about my probably-too-enthusiastic response to his reading). I couldn’t wait to read the rest and promptly went to the Bennington College bookstore to search for the book in the faculty section; nope. I tried at my local bookstore, too. Negative. After searching a few more places (Library? Not happening.), I finally ordered it from my favorite indie store and recommended they pick up a few more copies. No one there had heard of it, but, I told them, if the first novella I’d heard half of was any indication, the book was dynamite.
Nothing against the other two novellas in the collection, but it’s “Sarverville Remains” that sticks with me, specifically, Josh Weil’s intonation and drawl. I wish I had an audiobook of him reading that story (he, unfortunately, doesn’t narrate the audiobook). It’s the voice and tone of the novella that I find mesmerizing. His protagonist is so well-developed just by that voice. The reader slowly understands that this is perhaps not a reliable narrator and that everything we are seeing is coming through his dim-witted but endearing point of view.
The novella begins, “I want to say right here what I am sorry. I am sorry for where you is at and how you got there and I am sorry for calling you to the scene of the crime, as they say, and for the crime, and for if I hurt you something what’s took too long to heal. Most off I am sorry about your wife.”
Every grammatical error and misnomer is intentional and specific, draws a picture of this character before we learn anything about him.
We are immediately immersed in his world and, speaking for myself, intrigued. We get to play the game of the reader understanding more than the narrator, discerning the disparate parts of truth and perception.
I’m confident that Weil could have sustained this story for a full novel, or could have just called it a novel (it weighs in at 203 pages). What makes it a novella? In some ways, it feels unresolved. There’s not quite a full story arc, yet it doesn’t feel incomplete. There’s only one plotline, from one perspective, which, as I’ve said, is not entirely reliable. And yet, it works.
Weil’s collection, The New Valley, was critically well-received. It was a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award, and the prestigious “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. So how come so few people have heard of it a decade later?
I wonder if Weil’s novellas would have been more popular or widely known had they been billed as novels. I think there’s some apprehension about novellas, some skepticism about this lesser-known form, which can be so versatile. Why are novellas so often overlooked? I encourage readers to explore this underrated art form and to begin with Josh Weil’s The New Valley.
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About The Blogger
Erika Nichols-Frazer is a freelance writer and editor, as well as the part-time Communications Manager at the Children’s Literacy Foundation. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She won Noir Nation’s 2019 Golden Fedora fiction prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in HuffPost, Literary Orphans, Noir Nation, Lunate, OC87 Recovery Diaries, Please Do Not Remove: A Collection Celebrating Vermont Literature and Libraries, and elsewhere. She is a reader for Literary Orphans. She lives in Vermont.
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