Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

By David Connerly Nahm


Two Dollar Radio
August 2014

Reviewed by Cynthia-Marie Marmo O'Brien


An ocean's movements follow certain patterns, though it never twice looks the same. Even when the water is calm on the surface, we are fascinated by what could be happening underneath. David Connerley Nahm's debut novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky sustains the reader's interest through the unique texture of its storytelling, which shares a wave's qualities of advancement and receding. We repeatedly enter the same moments in time during the course of the novel, but in each telling we learn something new that alters our understanding. The author shows us a scene, moves us out of it, and unexpectedly takes us into the same scene later, using repetition for originality.

A novel about decay and what is forged in the continuous process of things passing away, this book is remarkable for the urgency and beauty it lends to observations of the ordinary sounds and sights of the world. One might be tempted to skip or dismiss some pages as irrelevant description, extraneous to what is happening, except that Nahm's syntax creates a compelling, even gripping, reverie with a wonderfully musical quality:

A bonfire dying down to a charred blot in the starless night, pale bodies passed out in the beds of the pickup trucks, young men and young women, and in the total blank, a voice . . . A woman walking in the woods, listening for crying that she heard. The muddy shore, brown and green, the brown water cooling in the shade. The buzz and whir of the trees. The clicking trees, the clacking trees. The silence of crumbling branches and leaves. The jawing of the woods, without beginning and without end and someone walking. A bend in the street and the sun-baked sidewalk with confetti of shadow, a leopard, and just at the bend a person walking away, disappearing around the curve, behind a tree and the street is empty. A secret post office box, a secret credit card, an evening hoping the cell phone does not ring. An evening worrying that the payment on the television set might not make it in time. That the payment on the SUV might not make it in time. A car driving past the house for the fourth time in an hour. A woman killing a colony of ants with a pot of boiling water and all the years' leaves in dunes in the corner of the porch.

As we turn the pages, we begin to realize that the author has put us in the same position as Leah Sheperd, the main character whose brother, Jacob, has been missing since they were children: every detail compels our attention because we do not know which of them will change the outcome, alter someone's life, or be a clue to the knowledge we're seeking.

"Absence is the highest form of presence," Joyce wrote, and it is the brother who is not in her life that preoccupies, and even fills, Leah's days and nights. Leah is three years older than Jacob, both his protector and his tormentor, telling him bedtime stories about a boy who gets lost in the woods and meets the devil. In real life, Jacob disappears one morning before the family sets off for church and is never found. Leah is haunted by her memories of the last few days she spent playing in their neighborhood and sharing a bedroom with Jacob, who was sure he saw a man outside their window. What did she see and hear that she should have paid attention to in order to save him? Their brief, shared childhood is like a fossil that, in the excavation, has been broken beyond recognition: Leah is no longer sure what she remembers and what she imagines.

What is certain is that the siblings were very close, resembling each other physically and in their responses to the world:

. . . their throats wailed the same strong wails when angry and their hearts beat the same rapid beats when winded from their running and when bad, their lips turned into the same red comma . . . they were the same, Jacob only a smaller version of his sister. Refractions split by facets. One in two places, bilocated, capering and splashing and yelping.

They study each other's skin and eyes, as children do, Leah thinking of their veins and scars as letters to be read.

Now, Leah lives alone in an apartment in their hometown of Crow Station, celebrated in the local newspaper as the director of a nonprofit that provides assistance to women, but unable herself to afford Internet access. She loses her life savings as the result of an act of kindness gone awry. At her office, "eventually you learn to not see the horrid design of the wallpaper peeling around you." Even as she processes other women's stories of heartache and misfortune, Leah inhabits her own feelings of guilt over Jacob's disappearance. The mystery of whether or how he died is one that she cannot answer, despite her dreams and her wandering. After a visit to the part of the local school that children say is haunted, "she realized how disappointed she was that she hadn't seen anything . . . She wanted to see something. She fell asleep trying to imagine what she could have seen."

Nahm's use of color and sound to depict a small, decrepit town and its surrounding natural landscapes is exceptionally vivid. The changing of the light is imbued with special significance, as are sounds, as though awareness of them is a singular, not shared, revelation and responsibility: "The one bird sang its one song and Mrs. Sheperd listened, certain that she was the one person awake in the neighborhood who could hear it. She rolled to find a comfortable spot between her husband and the wall." Nahm often situates the Sheperd family and the Crow Station wilderness in those hours of possibility between dusk and dawn, when dreams and reality are especially prone to blend and morph.

A stranger who comes from out of town to look for Leah pushes her to face the reality she has avoided even during all these years of uninterrupted grief. Once, the Sheperd children marveled at a tree limb crashing through the family car, where they could have been crushed. Leah buried some remnants of the tree to commemorate their lucky escape; the spot where she placed them was host of many evolutions of atoms from one state of being to another: "waves beat bones of crawling things to sand and dust and compress to limestone teeth that jut from the green jaw of green grass." Inside Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky's world, Nahm plumbs the depths of the permutations of what remains in language to be savored and revisited.