Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Jack Matthews (1925-2013)

It's Christmastime, but here in the Midwest it's more like spring. I have seen snowdrops, dandelions, violets, and forsythia in bloom. Robins are still hanging together in flocks, but they have been singing their spring songs, though only a few notes. I doubt they have mistaken the season or feel any embarrassment for it. Robins, in their boldness, seem incapable of that. It may be that they hold their songs at the ready and are simply trying out for a debut that is still three months away.

It was a colder season forty-eight years ago today when the Silver Bridge came down. Forty-six people died that day, on the bridge and in the waters of the Ohio River. Even now, in the area of Point Pleasant and across the river in Gallipolis, Ohio, there are people who remember the disaster or knew or are related to someone who died there. Jack Matthews was born in Columbus, Ohio, but had roots in Gallia County, of which Gallipolis is the seat of government. Matthews' father came into the world on a Gallia County farm. I don't know that Jack Matthews knew or was related to anyone who died in the Silver Bridge disaster, but he took on the identity of a fictional survivor in his novel Beyond the Bridge, from 1970. The book jacket biography above is from that novel.

Beyond the Bridge is brief but dense and complex, a much different book than Matthews' first novel, Hanger Stout, Awake! (1967), which is more a song of innocence than of experience. Beyond the Bridge takes the form of a diary of a man who has put his old life behind him and assumed a new one on the other side of the river--beyond the bridge--in West Virginia. The book ends with an entry for July 18, 1968--four days before Jack Matthews' forty-third birthday--as the protagonist sets out to cross another bridge and begin another diary.

In Beyond the Bridge, Matthews' diarist is friends with a fallen preacher named Harlan and becomes the lover of a local woman, Billie Sue, who knows all the superstitions of Appalachia. The diarist, Neil, writes of himself and Billie Sue:
     Only before we went to sleep, I myself wondered why I should be so interested in these silly superstitions and Harlan's insane theology.
     I couldn't figure it out, except for the possibility that I could feel human breath in them. And I can't help feeling close to people who have long been dead, and have no other voice left. (p. 138)
I like to think that those who are gone still have a voice, even if it's one we can no longer hear. But if Jack Matthews' only remaining voice for us--whether we are vast seas or merely islands of readership--is in his books, then I must share the feeling of his diarist, that of being "close to people who have long been dead, and have no other voice left." His books speak, have the breath of life in them, and, though their author has been gone two years now, still live.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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