CUTBANK REVIEWS: The Underworld by Kevin Canty

The Underworld by Kevin Canty  (2017)

Review by Bryn Agnew

Kevin Canty’s latest novel The Underworld tells the story of a disastrous fire in the mines beneath an isolated town in Idaho in the 1970s. Inspired by true events, the novel depicts the rippling effects of tragedy, leaving no one unscathed.

Canty’s characters are of the blue-collar variety, and the novel’s multiple points of view invite us to view their world through many pairs of eyes. There is a college student trying to make a new life for himself in Montana, a young widow with twins, and a lifelong hard-rock miner struggling against the thick, black smoke. The multiple points of view offer the reader an all-inclusive look at a catastrophe where everyone has lost someone—a friend, a lover, a brother, a father.

Canty’s prose is sharp and honest, never obscuring an image or character. The reader is immersed in the world of Silverton, Idaho as if they themselves were a resident of the silver mining town. The world is rendered vividly from the music playing on the radio to lines like “Their wives burst out of the crowd and through the gate and into their embrace, the filthy work clothes and the pretty pastels of their dresses.” But the marvel of The Underworld is the novel’s humanity. Canty’s characters drive the novel and crackle with life. They struggle with what is lost or could be lost and cling desperately to hope and love.

The Underworld features an overarching metaphor of light and darkness. Canty writes of the “thick, opaque, greasy-looking” smoke and the dead silence of the dark mine shafts, invoking a sense of dread in both the characters and the reader. It is a dread that permeates all of Silverton, and no one is tough enough to escape it. Yet, there is light. Even trapped in the depths of the smoky mine, a character thinks of his ex-wife. He wants “to see her, to say hello, see how she is getting along. It doesn’t seem like much. It isn’t much to hope for. But it might be enough.” The earliest manifestation of this metaphor is when David—the college student—is in the botany lab: “They’re quantifying phototropism, the rate at which a plant will grow toward the light. The light has come and gone and come again, dazzling sun punctuated by blizzards. The other day, a snowstorm full of lightning. Spring is the good news and the bad news both.” As the reader reads, Canty’s characters are in the act of their own phototropism. They grieve what is lost—and even though some will not make it—they grow toward the light.

Kevin Canty is the author of numerous works of fiction including A Stranger in This World, Into the Great Wide Open, Nine Below Zero, Honeymoon, Winslow in Love, Where the Money Went, Everything, and The Underworld. He has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and the New York Times Magazine. He currently teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Bryn Agnew is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana and a bookseller at Missoula’s Fact & Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, The Nottingham Review, and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas.