It may not be your biggest fear, but it’s probably in the top five: being buried alive. As a rule, we don’t really celebrate our miners much while they’re around, but when a disaster happens, we’re all over them: the movie The 33, about the San José Mine disaster in Chile; the folk song “The Ballad of Springhill,” about the 1958 Nova Scotia cave-in; the Bee Gees’ first pop hit, “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” about an imaginary tragedy; Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.”
Inspired by the notorious Sunshine Mine fire of 1972, novelist Kevin Canty’s The Underworld imagines life in the town from shortly before the disaster to right around the time the real healing begins.
Somehow it seems particularly appropriate for this book to come along at a point in our national history when miners and their livelihoods are often near the center of public debate. Mining is not glamorous work, but Canty drills beneath the surface stereotype to uncover a rich vein of subterranean complexity.
David Wright, the book’s primary protagonist among a vivid ensemble cast, comes from a mining family that feels the impact of the disaster keenly. Like many from the company town, he’s ambivalent about his home, but he’s taking his first tentative steps to break its gravitational bonds, distinguishing him from most of his peers. It would be easy—and wrong—to portray him as either victor or victim, and Canty does here what he did so well in earlier novels such as Winslow in Love and Everything: He plants himself at the corner of Human and Hero and describes what he sees, a journalist of the soul.
Canty’s publisher cites Russell Banks and Richard Ford as his esteemed literary antecedents, but Canty’s care with prose recalls Raymond Carver, and his empathy for the common man extends a bloodline that reaches back to the likes of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan. Like his New Yorker colleague John McPhee, Canty has a gift for turning the commonplace into the extraordinary by asking the right questions and allowing the truth to unfold.