Tuesday
Dec222015

A Hanging at Cinder Bottom

By Glenn Taylor


 

Tin House Books
July 2015
978-1941040096


Reviewed by Justin Thurman


 

One of the more controversial issues among gamblers is the value of the slow play in poker. It's a strategy intended to lure in cautious players who might otherwise fold given higher stakes. The perfect slow-play hand is a winning one—anything above a three-of-a-kind might do the trick—which is why the slow play is divisive. Anti-slow-play advocates contend that great hands are rare; those lucky enough to draw one should bet big and bet early. The biggest fish might just follow you to their peril.

But slow players think differently. They do not go all in, at least not right away. Instead, they check. They position bet. They banter. They hazard that every other player is dying to see their pocketed cards. While it may not thicken the pot, the slow play certainly thickens the audience's interest. And if done right, it might rake in the better story.

Though knowledge of gambling jargon isn't necessary to enjoy Glenn Taylor's third novel, A Hanging at Cinder Bottom, it might help to appreciate the book's more elegant scams. Like all great slow players, Taylor gets us into his game with dirty jokes and expertly handled hints and tells. What keeps us playing, however, is the suspicion that his seductive language and structural schemes will add up to something big in the end.

A Hanging at Cinder Bottom is something of a late-stage western. And it's a heist novel. And it's a mystery. But it is also the love story of two gold-hearted sin merchants born where, as Taylor describes, "There wasn't but one God, and he was the big-faced man on the big note."

It's 1910. Half of the novel's central couple is Goldie Toothman, a cathouse madam who awaits hanging for her part in the murder of the mayor of Keystone, West Virginia. Taylor's description of a nude Goldie in the Keystone jail is an early example of his mastery with arcane vernacular:

She was graceful and everywhere arched proportionate. Her skin was tanned despite incarceration, and she stood above the drain hole and hummed some more, waiting for her man . . . even after a month in the pokey, the condemned woman was the cat's whisker.

The protagonist and other half of the allegedly murderous duo is Abe Baach, pronounced "BAY-CH," a.k.a. the Keystone Kid. Abe and Goldie are on their way to the gallows in Cinder Bottom, Keystone's red light district, where they'll swing before a town that's slavering to watch it happen.

Like Goldie, Abe waits naked for the hangman at the beginning of the novel, and the scene exemplifies Taylor's bawdy sense of humor. Abe is not just well endowed, but "his pecker, in ordinary times a swag-bellied hog of considerable proportion, was, on this morning, contracted." Later, when the hangman and police chief, Rutherford Rutherford, collapses on the gallows, Taylor writes, "There came from his backside a mighty gust [. . .] a flatulence known only to the leprous gut, a ragged slap of wind." To this, Abe answers, "Amen."

This attention to the vulgar habits and dialect of Keystone's people adds color, of course. But it also functions as a diversion that mirrors the gifts of Abe, our central mechanic, who is more than simply a great poker player. Abe Baach is also a once-in-a-generation con artist.

Taylor withholds the fates of Abe and Goldie and A Hanging at Cinder Bottom turns to its tricky business. We flash back a full thirty-three years to the day Abe's father, Al Baach, lost his traveling companion, Vic Moon, to a cold-blooded and unsolved murder. This chapter introduces Keystone's major players: A younger Rutherford, addicted to hardboiled eggs and mortified by rat snakes; the mischievous and psychopathic Beavers brothers who are perpetually up to something; and Henry Trent, the slimy local businessman who beckoned Vic Moon and Al Baach to Keystone in the first place. This flashback is all the more bewildering for what little we seem to learn from it. At its best, it initially reads like barely relevant back-story.

Taylor then wisps us another twenty years into the future, where the Baachs are settled in Keystone and a young Abe's honing his craft. And then we're yanked into the future again, another six years, where misunderstandings and an ill-conceived robbery put Abe on the lam. And then we flash forward again, this time to the four months that brought Abe and Goldie to await their fates at the gallows.

Luckily, Taylor has the rare ability to present his world's past and geography without it seeming like a ham-fisted history lesson. He knows everything about Keystone and its various grotesques. Still, for its first half, A Hanging at Cinder Bottom plays like a series of loosely linked vignettes that raise more questions than answers. What does the unsolved murder of Vic Moon have to do with anything? Why do we need to know why Henry Trent initially hired Rutherford, "the little station agent with a big gun who moonlighted as a yard bull"? Does it matter why a drunken Abe once sabotaged a magic show and left for New York for seven years?

Taylor gambles with our attention until, at almost precisely the novel's halfway point, things shift. Abe is beckoned back into Keystone's wretched fold where he is reunited with Goldie. The loose threads start their coiling. And with Goldie and Abe entangled in a post-coital embrace, the novel's plotting comes into focus:

[S]he lay with her head on his chest as before and they began to speak of a new kind of plan, one wholly unconcerned with marriage or their role in the reproduction of the species . . . It would come to be, in fact, not a plan at all. It could come to be the big con . . . He said to her, "I need to know everything about everyone."

What follows is a series of crosses and double-crosses reminiscent of Hollywood heist flicks like The Sting, The Grifters, and The Great Train Robbery. Abe's plan taps an itinerant Punch-and-Judy puppeteer, a squealing capuchin monkey, and seasoned operators out of New York and Baltimore (one with a missing thumb). Every cultural difference, historical event, and character wrinkle plays a role—Vic Moon's murder matters. The boxing match in Reno between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries matters. Halley's Comet matters. Every piece has its place and Taylor solves Keystone's wicked puzzle with a magician's sleight of hand.

At the heart of the slow-play debate is why we gamble at all. Is it for money? Or is it to fill idle hours with some semblance of danger? And what's to be done with the deck of cards, this potentially lucrative constellation of numbers, suits, and faces? In A Hanging at Cinder Bottom, Taylor reminds us that the novel, as a form, is a slow play. If handled with care and cunning, fiction can reach the thrilling heights of a long con.