by Dan Leach
Since dropping his gut-punch novella Sophia in 2015, Michael Bible has emerged as heir apparent to syntactic virtuoso and Southern legend Barry Hannah. Not only does Bible share thematic fixations with Hannah—mainly Old South/New South tensions and booze-addled campaigns against existential malaise—he shares the uncanny ability to generate freakishly resonant passages whose musicality has more in common with Delta blues than literary fiction. As such, Bible’s newest book The Ancient Hours is best read in connection with Hannah’s famous take on regional storytelling. “The Deep South might be wretched,” Hannah once wrote. “But it can howl.” Although there is much to admire in The Ancient Hours’ energetic plot and tortured characters, Bible’s primary appeal lies in the howl of his sentences, the final effect of which is a fever dream of poetic riffs and unshakable images.
The Ancient Hours takes place in Harmony, North Carolina, a small town which, despite enjoying a recent stretch of tranquility, remains haunted by a past church burning that claimed the lives of 25 people. The first half of the 112-page novel depicts the events leading up to the massacre, while the back half tracks the ways in which the massacre continues to complicate the lives of various citizens in Harmony. Although technically the novel swivels across five speakers, at the center of the plot and the narration is Iggy, the nihilistic teenage outcast who started the fire. Iggy tells his portions of the story from death row, where he awaits execution. As he recalls his upbringing and eventually his crime, Iggy’s narration careens between riffs of callous resignation—“All that’s left for me is to die and I hope they smile when they inject me”—and small bursts of repentance—“I say the names of the dead each night before I sleep. Beg for the mercy that I don’t deserve.” Iggy is a versatile and fascinating narrator who invests most of his language in excavating his past (particularly his fraught relationship with small-town Christianity) and explaining his motives for starting the fire. Bible is too deft a character-builder to ask readers to sympathize with Iggy. Instead, he leverages Iggy’s warped psychology to explore the effects of oppressive religion, local cruelties and spiritual loneliness on marginalized young people.
Aside from shared geography, the various speakers of the novel are connected by a pervasive existential condition, which Iggy deems “The Constant” and defines as “something between a continuous longing and a sudden dread … Like a rainy afternoon when the sun is shining or the mysterious hum of an empty street at night.” Regardless of where they stand in relation to Iggy’s massacre and regardless of what emotional framework they employ to navigate Harmony’s heady mix of decency and cruelty, all of the characters in The Ancient Hours are plagued by “The Constant.” And yet, though they are plagued, Bible’s characters refuse to admit defeat, seeking redemption in love and in memory. In this sense, the characters here recall the gritty men and fearless women of the late Larry Brown.
Because of Bible’s Southern landscapes and musical prose, it’s tempting to compare The Ancient Hours with regional classics like Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp or Padgett Powell’s Edisto. While these comparisons are valid, The Ancient Hours might also be read as part of a different tradition, one which transcends regional sensibilities—that is, books that deal with the complexity of memory and the incommunicability of the past. As in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or, more recently, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Bible’s novel positions its characters to construct narratives using long-past memories, and in doing so, allows these characters to grapple with the inherent limitations of such a task. As the unnamed narrator of the novel’s opening chapter reflects: “We’ve tried to piece back together time itself, to find some way to undo it.”
So propulsive is Bible’s prose, it’s possible and even likely to burn through all 112 pages of The Ancient Hours in a single sitting and feel, as one felt with 2015’s Sophia and 2018’s Empire of Light, like you’ve just listened to a raw but flawless cut by a master bluesman. Vivid, soul-shaking and howling to its last syllable, Bible’s latest offering is essential reading for 2021.
Dan Leach’s fiction and poetry can be found in Copper Nickel, The Greensboro Review and storySouth. His debut collection, Floods and Fires, was released by University Press of North Georgia in 2017. He holds an MFA from Warren Wilson.