Glenn Taylor is an author I’d never heard of before, and I picked out a copy of The Marrowbone Marble Company because of the interesting jacket design. Don’t act like you don’t do it too. The reviews on the back compare Taylor to one of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy, as well as other American greats like Steinbeck and Irving. A lot to live up to, then.
Set in the USA during the 1940s and 50s, Marrowbone begins with a graphic account of the wartime experiences of its protagonist, Loyal Ledford. A one-time glass factory worker, Ledford joins the marines and ends up slitting Japanese throats under cover of darkness in Guadalcanal.
When he returns home, injured and alcoholic, Ledford can no longer stomach conditions at the Mann Glass Factory and the racism towards his black colleague, the floor-sweeper Mack Wells. Ledford is entranced by the factory fires, and haunted by echoes of his father, who comes to him in a dream and tells him to build a factory producing children’s marbles. He packs up his wife and kids, and travels out into the wilderness of Wayne County to begin his new venture.
The land around Marrowbone Cut is rugged and the people set in their ways. Ledford’s distant kin, the semi-feral Bonecutter brothers, agree to his using their land for the factory, and as word gets around more and more people join the Ledfords at Marrowbone. The community prospers as men and women of different colours and creeds are admitted without question.
Fortunately, there’s trouble in paradise with plenty of cross-burning locals and corrupt sheriffs out to ruin this harmonious scene.
Essentially, Marrowbone is a story about a man struggling to overcome a violent past and build a half-decent future. It sounds like a cliché, and there are times when Taylor’s world seems a little too, well, black-and-white. The middle of the novel is crushingly idyllic, in a transparent, the-shit’s-about-to-hit-the-fan kind of way.
That said, when it does all kick off, Taylor is certainly in his element. He does have an excellent way with blood and brimstone, in the tradition of writers like Cormac McCarthy, and a terseness that fits perfectly with the harsh existence of his characters: ‘The auto driver was out on bond. He’d be dead inside a day. The corned beef hash steamed.’
This is a novel of sweat and flames, of rough people and simple needs. Despite the racial tensions at the heart of the book, you can tell that Taylor has a desire for this simplicity, and it’s hard not to be seduced by that.
At the same time, it isn’t simply an idyllic American dream. This, I suppose, is where Steinbeck comes in. The dream is shattered by men’s actions (remember when Lennie snapped the neck of Curly’s wife?) and for all it’s earthiness it turns out that Marrowbone is also a novel of symbols and judgements, and of very modern and very American ideals of faith and pragmatism. A novel about people doing the right thing, even if it means occasionally doing the wrong thing.