Charlotte author’s debut novel delves into tragedy

The late novelist Walker Percy knew all about the search.

“To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something,” he wrote. “Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

The search, with all its manifold meanings, is at the heart of “What Luck, This Life” (Hub City Press, 216 pages), a staggeringly accomplished debut novel by Charlotte’s Kathryn Schwille.

First, the facts: February, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia comes apart, scattering debris from Dallas to Shreveport, La. Three years later, Schwille, a former Charlotte Observer editor, intrigued by the news accounts, makes the first of several visits to the Piney Woods area of East Texas, where much of the debris fell. She talks to dozens of people in the small towns in the area. She takes notes. The notes take on new life. A dozen years later, “What Luck, This Life.”

Here, in 15 linked stories, set in the fictional town of Kiser, Texas (“twenty miles south of Eno and thirty years behind”), we get to know the denizens — their large provincial hearts, their tangled motives and buried dreams.

On the first page, an omniscient narrator plunges the reader into the novel’s gut. “Carter Bostic heard a thud on her roof, then another, then two more. We turned on our televisions. Columbia’s lost, the anchor said. Not lost, we said, it’s here. Cable on a hay bale, computer in a tree, space suit in a briar patch, toilet by a school. Beside Junior Pierce’s mail box lay a shoeless foot, missing one big toe.”

Not to mention a lady’s hand (thumb nail filed into a perfect oval) on Gabriel Dixon’s wood pile, and the torso of an astronaut, head still in its helmet, in the branches on a tulip poplar.

For some, this disaster is diversion. For others, revelation. “They came from everywhere,” says a local, “to feel the pulse of our tragedy.”

And to search those piney woods, with its swamps and “briars high as your head.” They find a leg out on the highway, a windshield half-buried in the mud, a square of silver metal “big as a turkey platter. … the stuff was everywhere, light as paper, heavy as bricks.”

Kiser’s people also discover half-buried truths about themselves. Gabriel Dixon discovers a generous heart. The “rock-solid” head forest ranger Grady MacFarland, lust. The preacher who touts brotherly love, the capacity for a brutal betrayal. The high-minded young man who wanted to be an astronaut, thievery.

Grover Sharkey, who believes “we must all find the frame that gives our life meaning,” unearths an unspoken love for a woman, whose death “has torn a fragment from his soul and sent it sailing into the hereafter.”

Schwille lends a tenderness to human frailty, and what could be macabre, she gentles with respect.

“The torso was cradled by two branches in a deep crook, about sixty feet up,” she writes.”The astronaut’s pose was awkward, but the arms of the tulip tree had received him with dignity, above the eager sniff of scavengers.”

Kathryn Schwille’s sensibility is reminiscent of Ron Rash, a sort of lyric grittiness, and her keen alertness to human strength and foible brings to mind the late Doris Betts.

“What Luck, This Life,” is nothing short of magnificent.

Author events

Kathryn Schwille will be at these book stores in September:

Park Road Books in Charlotte at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20.

Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, in conversation with Elaine Neill Orr, author of “Swimming Between Worlds,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25.

Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26.