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“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

–John Milton


The Cock’s Spur, by Charles F. Price (John F. Blair, Publisher, 2000, 303 pages, $19.95)

The Cock’s Spur is a much bigger novel than its 300-plus pages. It’s also perhaps the best of a batch of recently published novels (Cold Mountain, In the Fall, Gap Creek, etc.) that represent the Appalachians and their people during the turbulent Civil War era and after.

What makes the book unique, separating it from the many others of its ilk, is the fact that, as in his previous two books — Hiwassee (Academy Chicago, 1996) and Freedom’s Altar (John F. Blair, Publisher), the latter of which took the 1999 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for best work of fiction by a North Carolinian — Price once more shines the literary light on his own ancestors. In his latest book, Ves Price takes center stage. He’s a wild rascal whose antics cause the reader to alternately laugh with him and jeer at him. The author doesn’t succumb to the temptation of a heroic portrayal, merely because he and Ves happen to be related. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Among some of the novel’s other complex and fascinating characters is Hamby McFee, a freed slave and cockfighter extraordinaire — and the book’s true protagonist.

I asked the author (who lives in Burnsville) why he chose Hamby as a lead character, and he said he thought it important to try and understand the black man’s role in the Southern culture of that period. He noted that he felt most closely drawn to Hamby, who works for the Curtis family: Rebecca and her brother, Andy, a Civil War veteran who has slipped into insanity.

Even if the book concerned itself with just these four, that would be enough, given the style and the nearly Faulknerian way Price develops and handles his characters. But more compelling characters abound: Webb Darling, King of the Moonshiners; Tom Carter, Rebecca’s long-suffering suitor; Katie Shuford, the local trollop and Ves Price’s sometime-sweetheart; and Jared Nutbush, Katie’s other suitor (a.k.a. Ves’ nemesis). Then, too, there’s a grand and glorious supporting cast that includes the fighting cocks — Gouger, Buttermilk and Pile Driver — who may be among the story’s most empathetic characters.

In fact, Price’s cockfighting scenes are so richly written they are reminiscent of what another pretty good writer, Jack London, did with Call of the Wild’s dogfight scenes.

Just as impressive is Price’s rendering of place — 1880s-era Western North Carolina — through the language of its people and their hardscrabble life. There is rarely a languid moment, never a dull scene. This is a sweeping novel of cockfights and gunfights, of moonshine-running and old blood feuds, of pride and honor … and dishonor. But it’s not romantic, as many books with similar settings have been. The reader isn’t spared the gritty details of a time and place where, often, only self-imposed law ruled the day. And yet the book’s beauty fidgets in some of its more horrible details. Price’s people are interesting because of their flaws.

The Cock’s Spur is not without its tenderness, however. In fact, without giving anything away, I direct readers to a scene near the end that’s as powerful as the dying scene in Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro. The novel’s final chapters certify the theme of redemption without the usual maudlin closure that a lesser writer might bring in to ruin an otherwise crackling good tale.

Charles F. Price will read from The Cock’s Spur at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Friday, Dec. 8, beginning at 7 p.m. Call (828) 586-9499 for more info.

December events

Friday, Dec. 1, Malaprop’s: Samia Serageldin will read from her novel, The Cairo House. 7 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 2, Malaprop’s: Richard Schmitt will read from his novel, The Aerialist. 7 p.m.

Monday, Dec. 4, Malaprop’s: Curt Richter will sign copies of his photographic gift book, A Portrait of Southern Writers. 7 p.m.

Tuesday, Dec. 5, Malaprop’s: Best-selling author David Baldacci will sign copies of his new novel, Saving Faith. 7 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 8, Malaprop’s: David Payne will read from his book, Gravesend Light. 7 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 9, Malaprop’s: Douglas Orr Jr. and Alfred Stuart will sign copies of their North Carolina Atlas: Portrait for a New Century. 1 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 10, Malaprop’s: Anne Grant will sign copies of Voices in the Sand and Weaverville-based mystery author Elizabeth Daniels Squire will sign her books Forget About Murder, Who Killed What’s-Her-Name and a new edition of her Remember the Alibi. 3 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 16, Malaprop’s: Abigail Dewitt will sign copies of her new novel, Lili. 1 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 16, Blue Moon Bookstore (Spruce Pine): Gary Carden will read from and sign copies of his book, Mason Jars in the Flood and Other Stories. 7 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 17, Malaprop’s: George Humphries will sign copies of his photography books, including North Carolina Images of Wilderness. 3 p.m. (See a review of North Carolina in Xpress’ Dec. 20 Holiday Season Guide.)

[Bill Brooks teaches the Blue Ridge Writers Program at A-B Tech. He is the author of 10 novels.]

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