David Armand’s The Gorge puts us deep in the Louisiana backcountry where 22-year-old Clyde Tuller is sitting in a small-town prison for the murder of his girlfriend, Amber Varnado. Her body is found deep in a rocky gorge, and Tuller is an easy suspect. The characters involved are raspy, backwoods, thickset men with broken pasts and a penchant for violence. Amber’s own father, John, is a Vietnam veteran who suffers from horrible flashbacks and drinks heavily, causing him to become irrational and violent. In one incident he goes too far when the family dog bites him, and he shoots it. His wife died when Amber was a baby and he is now left to raise her on his own. John goes to work while Amber stays home for days at a time. When child protective services start checking in, John carries the then three-year-old Amber off to Franklinton, Louisiana.
Roughly 15 years later, we meet Clyde Tuller as he is roping a colt at the Washington Parish Fair. He is a 22-year-old cowhand who keeps saddle oil in his shirt pocket, flips empty beer cans out of his truck as he drives, and works from sun up to sun down for Amber’s father. While at the fair he meets Amber and her friend, Chantelle. The three decide to head out to the gorge to drink as there is simply “nothing better do.” David Armand sets his scenes well, especially here, where the sense of danger is present even among the innocent charm of Tuller and the fair itself. It’s a superb opening chapter. Armand paints Louisiana with simplicity and darkness, carrying us through wide-open fields, houses that have been abandoned, dirt roads, and mystery.
Amber, who is instantly attracted to Tuller, proceeds without hesitation to the gorge. Chantelle is open to the ride and the drinking, however, when it starts getting late she insists they leave. She is promised to be driven home in an hour. The three go deeper into the woods and drink beer, smoke, and light a fire. Chantelle begs to leave, but when more of Tuller’s friends show up he tells her they’ll be just a little while longer. We move forward to morning, as everyone awakes in the dirt around leaves and soggy air. Chantelle is gone. There’s a note on Tuller’s truck reading, “Went home.” When Tuller and Amber drive back to the fair, Chantelle’s car is still there and the chapter ends with the haunting, “…she was just a girl lost in the wilderness of this place, full of secrets and dark mystery….”
On that note, The Gorge has the ability to feel grander than it is although it is deeply flawed. It is a thin novel, coming in at just under 150 pages, and in those 150 pages we are brought through a disorganized and utterly lost narrative. The story itself though never quite lives up to its wonderful opening chapter. The narrative shifts frequently, going back in time to when Tuller first meets Amber, to when Tuller works for Amber’s father and is called to help deliver a stillborn calf. After the farm work is done, Tuller often meets with Amber to go on dates.
On one occasion they find her old house, pick mushrooms to make hallucinogens, burn old photographs, and fall in love. There’s a tender quality to all of Armand’s writing, most notably in these scenes. Even in the time where we’re within this lost narrative, the individual scenes are a strength; they’re nostalgic and whimsical without trying hard to be. Consider an opening chapter where Tuller and Amber meet up after seeing each other for several weeks: “They were planning on spending the day riding horses, then maybe laying together in the dark cover of the woods, drinking cold cans of Budweiser and smoking some pot too.”
What follows is another exquisite chapter in The Gorge where Tuller and Amber visit the house Amber grew up in – a shack with a screen door on its side, broken windows, and darkness. The scene is an intimacy that’s well done: impressive and haunting.
All Amber and Tuller have are each other, but what surrounds them is not so innocent – a small town filled with broken lives, and seemingly no chance to escape the same fate as many of its residents, who end up as drunks, in jail, or dead. This inevitability makes The Gorge a haunting, although underdeveloped, novella. The storytelling itself is as rugged as its country – meandering and beautiful, but without meaning. We go from Tuller to brief spans of time with a man named Euwell Roberts – a drunkard who lives in a shack and who was sexually assaulted as a child. He now seeks out victims of his own and his willingness to hurt someone is “as sure as a thunderstorm.” From Euwell’s narrative we continue to a four-foot tall man named Grady Bickels who was abused by his mother. As a child he was forced to sleep in a pulled out drawer in his dresser, being locked inside when he disobeyed, but as an adult he can’t quite bring himself to create victims of his own. These scenes are drawn well enough to be their own narratives, but how they fit in with The Gorge is its own mystery. Armand’s individual scenes are exceptional, but as a whole his story is a scattered kind of being, bringing in new characters at a whim and going back into the past and then forward within the same stroke. It doesn’t make for great novel, or even a well-assembled novel. Still, there’s enough to become engaged in and even find moving.
The Gorge itself feels like a collection of well-written scenes, although mixed up and without a cause. There are well-crafted scenes, without question, but a collection nonetheless, with the reason behind them missing. Too much mystery is never followed up on – most notably Chantelle’s disappearance and the fate of Amber herself. You could argue that we’re not supposed to know. Fair enough, but too much is still missing. The plot-less nature comes off as unfinished when it should feel more whole, and the mystery is thus diminished. We go from Tuller and Amber, to men like Euwell and Grady in short spans all the while left wondering where things are going. The Gorge then becomes less about the mystery of the unknown, and as things conclude haphazardly, we begin to feel much like Tuller in his jail cell: wondering how we got there, and what could have been.
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