Robert Morgan's This Rock is one of the books that I picked up for less than $2 during a book sale two years ago. It started off promisingly - the blurb on the cover promised what I thought would be a Cain and Abel kind of showoff between Moody and Muir. It was supposed to be a 'gripping story of two brothers struggling against each other and the confines of their 1920s Appalachian Mountain world.' Moody and Muir are expectedly as different as chalk is to coffee - Moody is the sour, sarcastic black sheep, and Muir is the quiet, hard-working builder in life - the would-be preacher and the do-gooder of the family. Morgan uses Muir's voice for a majority of the book, interspersing it with Ginny, his mother's voice in intervals.
We read of Muir's constant struggles - his inner dialogue as he seeks to make something out of his life, and the failures that accompany each of his undertakings. He tries to preach, he croaks. He tries to drive to Canada to catch muskrats, he turns around thinking that better muskrats are to be found closer home. He has ideas. He is young, he fancies Annie in the valley where his village is situated in, and he thinks Moody is the source of all trouble. Indeed, Moody appears so. A confirmed bootlegger, Moody is painted as an extremely unlikeable character - yet, Morgan drops enough hints to keep us guessing that Moody is laying the path for some grand redemption. Yet, while the reading is fast, the dialogue - mainly the inner dialogue in Muir and Ginny is rather ponderous. Muir and Ginny are never fully-fleshed out - and the most irritating aspect for me was that all actions ultimately have no purpose. Each time something happens, I think, right, the novel begins now. But no. Long passages lead to fruitless endeavors. A road trip is packed in between. Ginny reminiscences about her dead husband, and worries about Moody. That chap himself can't seem to care about anything except his drink. And Muir keeps running off suddenly for no real reason...only to of course, flounder in miserable failing. Sample this for what has to be one of the worst passages I have ever read in a book. Muir gets a job as a clerk in U.G.'s store:
I sold sausages too, and boiled eggs from a jar. I sold soda crackers and wedges of cheese off the wheel. I sold canned salmon and sometimes canned beef. I sold taters out of bushel baskets, both sweet Irish. From kegs in the back of the store I scooped up nails of all pennies and weighed them. I sold hammers, and hoes and shovels, picks and mattocks, scythes and swing blades. I sold pliers and wire cutters, hedge clippers and carpenter levels and saws. In the dark space in the back of the store there was sacks of dairy feed and laying mash, shorts for hogs and cottonseed meal. I liked the smell of molasses in dairy feed. I sold bags of crushed oyster shells for chickens and scratch feed for little chicks. There was oats for horses and mixes of sweet feed.
This is before Muir tells us he sold candy bars and chewing gums, dripping Co-Colas, cups of ice-cream and cookies and strings of licorice and pickles in a crock of brine. AFTER this passage, he goes on about how he sold guano, bags of bean seed, fertilizer, flower seeds, cough syrup...it goes on! For two pages!! What is Morgan trying here? A shopping list of the 1920s?
Morgan has also infused the book with a heavy religious overtone - almost all actions of Muir are influenced by the Lord, and Christian symbols are interlaced throughout. Muir's final act is to build a church on a mountain. But even religion seems to have no steadfast sense of stay here. The ending bumbles to an incomprehensible ending that makes you wonder if anyone in this book had any purpose at all. It is almost as if I feel Morgan himself had no idea what to do - he thinks he is writing a beautiful novel of Christian virtue and forgiveness and redemption - zilch. It is a pathetic novel of failing. Not Muir's failing. But Morgan's. Sorry. But as a reader, I so hate it when words get wasted on paper. There is no doubt that Morgan is a better writer than This Rock. I so wish I have a rock myself to throw at this book.
Verdict: Read only if you derive a peculiar pleasure in torturing yourself.