Based on a real-life event, Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Keller’s latest Bell Elkins novel Fast Falls the Night takes place in a single 24-hour period, unfurling against the backdrop of a shattering personal revelation that will change Bell’s life forever.
Julia Keller has written a perfectly heartbreaking tale of a small town in West Virginia rocked by an unusually high number of heroin overdoses in a 24-hour period. Some overdoses result in death, but all have an everlasting impact on the people of the town.
If by some miracle this woman lived, she would, Danny knew, be doing this again another night, in another dirty bathroom. Again and again. And so would all the others. Rinse and repeat. It wasn’t worthy of anybody’s grief. Nothing was ever going to change. There was nothing special about any of this, Danny told himself; there was nothing special about this woman, or about this night.
He was wrong.
This is a common thread throughout this novel: the idea of an addict’s worth where the law is concerned. Are their deaths considered murder? Or suicide? Who is responsible? Is it the dealer for selling tainted heroin? Why waste resources on people who are doing this to themselves on purpose?
Bell was surprising herself. She had not felt this passionate about anything in quite a while, least of all anything to do with concern over addicts and their self-inflicted miseries. She had enough on her plate just trying to achieve justice for the wholly innocent, for the people who hadn’t regularly summoned their own misfortune like someone whistling for a dog from the back porch.
According to Keller, a native West Virginian, the event that inspired the novel was a real-life spate of overdoses in her own hometown of Huntington on August 15, 2016. The novel covers just those 24 hours, broken up into multiple points of view, in what is perhaps the most interesting and emotionally wrought experience of how such a mass tragedy affected the lives of so many individuals.
But these characters are more than just a reaction to tragedy. They are richly imagined people with their own loves and losses. Danny works at a convenience store where he enjoys solitary nights, occasionally bantering with Deputy Sheriff Jake Oakes. Jake has a crush on a black EMT named Molly. Molly is taking care of her mentally challenged brother, Malik.
Meanwhile, Bell Elkins is the county prosecutor who’s dreaming of returning to DC to be a part of her own private law practice. Bell’s sister Shirley is trying to figure out how to tell Bell that she’s dying. Charlie Mathers is a retired sheriff who wonders how he’s going to fill his days beyond binging Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Raylene Hughes lies about her daughter’s cancer to scam money from shoppers at the market. Her daughter’s father, Eddie, is trying to piece his life back together after a devastating war injury. And so on. It’s fascinating to see the ripple effect the overdoses have on ordinary people as well as get a glimpse into their inner turmoil that has nothing to do with the events of the day.
Beyond creating fascinating people, the way this author puts words together on the page is nothing short of alchemy. Julia Keller is truly a wordsmith of the highest order. Take, for example, Dot Burdette, the aunt who raised the first overdose victim, one who didn’t survive. The description of this woman’s anger and bereavement for the one she tried so hard to do right by is so evocative:
There was a fury in Dot’s tone, a stoked-up anger rich and raw. Gone was the elegant, clipped, even slightly arrogant mien of the bank vice president, the woman whose nails were always perfectly manicured, whose hair was always sculpted and tinted a metallic shade of white-blond, the woman who had always, in Bell’s estimation, held herself apart from her tattered hometown, as if she only stayed here out of pity, and out of a desire to give lesser mortals a glimpse of what they might aspire to. That woman had disappeared. This one had a voice reaching deep into the flinty past of her ancestors from the hills of West Virginia, smearing itself with the mud of coarseness and casual brutality.
Fast Falls the Night is a Southern Gothic for the modern era. Deeply soulful and raw with emotion, it will challenge the way you think about the inner lives of strangers and how no one is immune to tragedy. My only warning: This book is truly only about this 24-hour period. It begins at 12:04 a.m. and ends at 11:58 p.m. We can only speculate about what happens after.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.