By Robert Gipe
Ohio University Press
Dawn Jewel is all grown up, and she has a story to tell.
In Robert Gipe’s new illustrated novel, Pop, we return to Dawn, who was a central character of Trampoline and Weedeater, Gipe’s previous books in the series. Now in her 30s and back in fictional Canard County in rural Eastern Kentucky, this last installment in the trilogy picks up during the 2016 presidential election.
Dawn enlists the help of two other storytellers: her daughter Nicolette and her uncle Hubert. Because, as she puts it, “The story we are going to tell you is hard.”
Gipe’s style seems to be the right way to tell it. The novel is a quilt of short vignettes narrated by three distinct voices, each dryly witty, painfully clear-eyed, and heartbreakingly sincere. Each chapter is introduced by his signature loopy illustrations, lanky Nicolette in her oversized beanie, Dawn beneath a mop of tangled hair, and Hubert with his belly sticking out from beneath an old T-shirt.
Dawn is right. The story they’re telling is hard. She isn’t the same hotheaded teen we met in Trampoline. A lifetime of loss and an increasingly hateful social media feed have worn her down. She shuts herself away in her mamaw’s old house, fighting the good fight in the Facebook comment sections. Outside, life goes on in Canard County. Her teen daughter Nicolette struggles in the aftermath of a sexual assault, throwing herself into her new artisanal soda business. Hubert works on turning over a new leaf and taking care of the ones he loves.
But even though it’s hard, Gipe shows us there’s power in telling a story. When a group of Hollywood filmmakers finds themselves in Canard County, renting Hubert’s cabins to shoot their movie set in Appalachia, they already have a juicily convoluted plot in mind involving alien gangsters mutating hillbillies into wild half-alien creatures by selling them a new space drug. But on cold nights, sitting around fires in Hubert’s cabins, mulling over the nuances of aliens and drug companies and coal and glow-in-the-dark squirrels the size of 10-year-olds, the filmmakers listen to the stories of the people of Canard County. The plot of the movie becomes even stranger, more delirious, and fully collaborative. Every person standing around the fire seems to share a small corner of it. In the end, together, they create “the best goddam interstellar, drug dealer, eco-sexual, anti-capitalist, pro-hillbilly action thriller the world has ever seen.” And what could be better than that?
It’s a scene that seems almost wistfully fantastical, the idea of filmmakers coming into Appalachia and letting the “hillbillies” tell their own story. Too often Appalachian voices are left out of Appalachian stories told at a national level. The memoir Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is a potent recent example, receiving mixed reviews for its broad generalizations about the region. It certainly didn’t help that its 2020 film remake lacked Appalachian voices at the helm.
The 2016 election provides the perfect backdrop for that conversation. While stories like Hillbilly Elegy are often used to dissect and interpret the rural Trump voter, the residents of Canard County peer through a clearer lens that reveals the nuances of the buildup to the election and its impact on their home. Gipe’s misfit characters are well-suited for the task. Bitter, spirited, confused, lonely, compassionate, old, young, queer, trans, and occassionally ghostly – they are nothing if not complex.
These characters tend to make plenty of mistakes, but telling their own story in their own words – whether that’s coming clean about a crime, confiding in a friend about a sexual assault, or revealing secrets on a deathbed – always seems to set things in the right direction.
For Nicolette, that story lies in her strange and sometimes supernatural connection to the region, in the stained index cards where she learns family recipes and the old-timey songs her great-granddaddy used to sing. For Hubert, it’s a complex story of love, loyalty, and regret, with no clear good guys or bad guys. And for Dawn, in the aftermath of the election, she contemplates one of the most fundamental tropes in folk storytelling, the first line in any Jack Tale – “setting out.” She faces a decision: to stay locked away in bitterness or to set out and change something.
Pop is sad, stupid funny, and savagely honest. Gipe’s prose rushes by in a whirl of strangeness, of characters and dialogue, jokes and heartbreaks, ghosts and wildfires, sinkholes and giants telling Jack Tales, plus a couple of movie stars. It leaves the reader with a feeling that it’s time to “set out” – whether that means taking on a corporate polluter, starting a new artisanal pop business, or just telling your own story in your own words to someone who will listen.
Graham Marema is from Norris, Tennessee, and lives in Knoxville.