Tomlinson’s fictional stories reveal hard truths of mountaintop removal mining and other subjects

BOOK REVIEW
ocean-tomlinson

By MARY POPHAM

Fiction offers a close look at the truth in Jim Tomlinson’s group of short stories, Nothing Like An Ocean. When he delves into issues such as mountaintop removal coal mining, marriage difficulties and the loneliness of single people, he gets to reality—the heart of the subjects.

In lovely prose, Tomlinson reveals the interiority of his characters. Though most of his subjects are the people of rural Kentucky, he shows them in modern life—Latinos working at the Quick Stop, cell phones with warbling trills and video games powered from a satellite dish. These wise people, made strong by hardship, have been brought up in families with a tradition of honesty and fair dealings.

Tomlinson’s character studies elicit sympathy for a young teen that inhales carburetor fluid because he feels neglected, yet also for the boy’s single mother who struggles to raise him. She works for a promotion to advance their lives while feeling guilty for also needing personal attention.

In “Overburden,” the author gets at the abomination of mountaintop removal, not as an essay, but as seen by his characters. He defines the term overburden—the mountaintop that gets dumped into the valleys—and describes blown-away mountains: “Within a half mile, the road climbs and the world changes. Tulip poplar trees, redbuds, and magnolias vanish. Their green and gold canopy gives way to a landscape of endless stumps and mammoth log stacks on the denuded hillside … a vast expanse of drab, sculpted tablelands, gray rock and rubble everywhere.” Written in a story of fiction, but a vision of ugly truth.

Church, education, ambition, relationships within families, descriptions of how fear is not so much of change, but of losing—these are Tomlinson’s subjects, and most are tender love stories with myriad expressions: a parent’s realization of poverty and dealing with it for the sake of the children; an unforgettable one-night stand, romanticized for years and at long-last dealt with; travels back to Eastern Kentucky—tales of remembering the past and comparing it with the present. Sometimes the present comes up short, but on deeper reflection, it is the winner.

Jim Tomlinson is a talented writer, brilliant and capable. His stories vary in form from “Rose,” which reads like a short prose poem, to a wry epistolary offering, “The Persistence of Ice.” A couple of stories are related by using the same character, Rita at the Wonder Inn. The endings are sometimes ambiguous, often surprising, and in one instance, the indication of another beginning. In well-crafted pieces with masterful turns in the tales, Tomlinson writes the truth of rural Kentucky and gives it a place of dignity in literature.

Mary Popham is a writer who lives in Louisville. She earned a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding University.


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