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Sunday, July 30, 2017

"The Pale Light Of Sunset Scattershots and Hallucinations in an Imagined Life" by Lee Maynard--Book Review

Maynard, Lee: The Pale Light of Sunset Scattershots and Hallucinations in an Imagined Life (Morgantown, WV Vandalia Press 2009)

Until Lee Maynard's recent death on June 16, 2017, I had never read any of his work.  Maynard was, and will always be, a controversial figure in the world of literature in West Virginia and Appalachia.  His first published work, "Crum", was actually banned from sale at the Tamarack Center in Beckley, WV, due to its perceived extreme negativity to Crum, WV, Maynard's hometown, and to West Virginia and Appalachia in general. Most of the West Virginia and Appalachian writers who have been my mentors and friends also held Maynard in contempt for the same reason.  We rarely, if ever, discussed him or his work.  And generally, to a person, we never bothered to read his work.  I chose to read this book after having read some comments, in a newspaper obituary, from Cat Pleska about Lee Maynard, his death, and his writing.  Cat Pleska and I have never met but are now Internet and E-mail friends and I trust her judgment. I am glad I read the book.

Lee Maynard Photo By Huntington Herald Dispatch
First and foremost, let me say that I am a strong proponent of the idea that everyone alive should read at least one banned book a year.  If you can't read at least one book which has been banned, then read at least one book a year by an author who has had work banned.  Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression are some of the most important freedoms available to citizens of a democracy.  They should be cherished, protected, and utilized on a daily basis by every citizen of such a democracy.  With that in mind, along with the positive recommendation of Cat Pleska, I decided to read some of Lee Maynard's works.  It was a wise and rewarding choice.  Let me say, unequivocally, the man could write.  He could also live.  He lived well.  He lived loudly. He lived dangerously.  He cherished ever day he was given on this earth and he used them to the best of his ability to achieve many of the things of which he dreamed and to which he aspired.  Lee Maynard, in his best moments, wrote fine, lyrical literature which sings, whispers, chants, and sometimes roars off the pages.  

"The Pale Light of Sunset..." is a memoir although it has been sometimes called a work of fiction or quasi-fiction.  One of the quotations which Maynard chose to use on the frontispiece states: "All stories are true, if they are well written. The question is what they are telling the truth about. Lee Kinder."   In that quote lies a riddle which the astute reader of this book finds herself attempting to answer.  Is it fiction?  Is it fact, memoir, autobiography?  Is it a little of both?  I subscribe to the idea that it is a little of both.  I believe that Lee Maynard, like most of us, wanted the world to know about his most cherished memories, his greatest achievements, and his greatest loves.  I also believe that Lee Maynard, like most of us, had a tendency to stretch the truth a bit.  As we live and move farther away from key events in our lives, they tend to grow in our hearts and memory.  They tend, sometimes, to become bigger than reality.  And, in reality, many of the events in Lee Maynard's life were already mighty big.  He rode a motorcycle from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the Arctic Circle more than 4,000 miles away in September when the icy claws of  an Arctic winter were already attempting to grasp at the living beings in the great white north.  He climbed mountains even late in his life.  He survived a serious storm in a kayak in the Sea of Cortez which left him stranded on an uninhabited island off the coast. Lee Maynard also published eight books in his life, a feat that most aspiring writers only fantasize about.  Late in life, Lee Maynard returned to that island in the Sea of Cortez to answer unspoken questions he must have had.  On that return, he found himself sharing a meal with a total stranger, a Mexican fisherman who invited him to a fire, part of a large yellow tail, half of a Coke bottle full of coffee, and some reflections on life from a stranger and a poor man.  In return, as they parted, Lee Maynard threw the man a custom fillet knife saying "this is not in payment for the dinner.  It is just time for the knife to have a new owner."  The book is full of moments like that which show us a side of Lee Maynard which contradicts all the negative publicity he ever generated with whatever it is he said about Crum, West Virginia, and Appalachia in his other works.  

"The Pale Light of Sunset..." is a collection of autobiographical essays ranging from less than a page to more than twenty.  Like the work of any author who writes essays, some of them  are better than the rest.  Some are quite ordinary.  Some border on greatness.  When Lee Maynard was writing at his best, his work was rewarding, stunning, shimmering, and fulfilling.  There is one particular essay in the book which I must insist is a love song to West Virginia, the same West Virginia which produced a writer who wanted to leave her with all his heart also became a man who loved to return to her, loved to seek peace, solitude, and enlightenment in her mountains and streams.  "An Arrow In The Light" is a wonderfully written, glowing piece of work which tells the reader, without a doubt, that Lee Maynard loved to return each year to one quiet farm and one powerful friendship in the mountains of the Mountain State.  Any man who rode a motorcycle from Santa Fe to Central West Virginia could not have been motivated by hate for his destination.

"The Pale Light of Sunset..." is a book which has a cherished place in the literature of West Virginia and Appalachia.  It is a book which every student of Appalachian literature should read.  It will reward you.  It will fulfill you.  It will warm the cockles of your heart.  I am especially grateful that I chose to read this book by an author whose previous work was banned in West Virginia.  You will be too.  I sincerely wish I could have known Lee Maynard.  I realize that at times there was an abrasive edge to his personality.  There is one to mine also.  But I would have loved to sit beside a camp fire on a quiet West Virginia mountain in the silence of a spring night and share a meal and a few tales with Lee Maynard

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