When "the great Ivan Z" returns to the little Appalachian mining town where he grew up, he is "a grown man with only one box." Indeed, the former football hero turned sheriff's deputy, whose dream career was stopped in its tracks by an accident, has few possessions to show for the last 17 years but a great deal of baggage. He has come home to await the arrival of an old teammate, Reese Raynor, who has been paroled after serving 18 years in prison for beating his young wife into a vegetative state. The fires that still rage underground years after a local mine explosion are reflected in the hell on earth that Raynor has created for those he touches. Ivan aims to do something about it, although he's not sure what. Coal Run gradually reveals that Ivan, too, has consequences to deal with, the result of his own untrammeled adolescent behavior.
Tawni O'Dell, whose first novel Back Roads struck gold when it was picked for Oprah Winfrey's book club, has given us a second novel just as steeped in gray-black local colors, and perhaps even more subtly amusing. ("Our other deputy is Todd Stiffy, whose name alone propelled him into an armed occupation.") And O'Dell exhibits surprising mastery over the young violent male mind, for which the advice, "Don't kill anything you don't want to kill" is stunningly appropriate. (Actually, an oversupply of violent males clutters the first 100 pages, until the reader gets them all straight.) The spirit of this book is John Denver noir, country roads at midnight, when more demons than stars come out. Still, for Ivan in the end, love supplies meaning and purpose. The wisdom of his father, a Ukrainian refugee who was killed in the mine accident, proves more timeless than the disastrous foul-ups of teenagers: "You can have all the food and toys and even all the bombs,' he told my mom while they shared one of their last nights together, 'but no man can protect himself from uselessness.' "
Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.