I just finished reading SNAKETOWN (2010) by Kathleen Wakefield, and it’s one of the best contemporary American novels I’ve read in a long time. As fresh as its language and structure is, the book has qualities of medieval literature inasmuch as it confronts questions of evil, character, fate, and redemption unabashedly.
Set in a Southwestern mining town, the novel re-imagines the region with language and images that are at once lyrical and primal, mythic and immediate. The mountains, the mine, the valley, the town, and the key family never become fantastical, but they take on an aura that’s just surreal enough to lift the regional to the universal, as happens in the work of Morrison, Marquez, and Faulkner. Indeed, the hard-scrabble, insulated Sibel family sometimes seems distantly related to Faulkner’s Snopes clan but is more wretched. The novel opens with a note of doom and builds toward a dark symphony.
SNAKETOWN is an ambitious but unpretentious meditation on evil—how it arises, is cultivated, and overwhelms. Wakefield renders the tale in brief, carefully sculpted chapters. The character Orin Sibel, among others, is unforgettable.
SNAKETOWN won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest and is published in paperback by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Wakefield is a lyricist as well as a fiction writer, working in television and film with Vangelis, Michel Colombier, and other composers.