Falling Dark by Tim Tharp ’92 M.F.A. (Milkweed Editions, 256 pages, $21.95).
Beauty doesn’t exactly leap out at you in rural Oklahoma. It is a hard, desolate place where the only things in abundance are poverty, isolation, and empty spaces. In Falling Dark, Tim Tharp’s first novel, the Oklahoma flatlands are as bleak as ever, but they also become the setting for love, death, and redemption. Tharp’s work carries a touch of Faulkner, though his version of the rural South bears little resemblance to Yoknapatawpha County. Falling Dark is set in a world of Wal-Marts, marijuana farms, self-serve gas stations, and tacky country-and-western bars. Tharp’s South is a place that isn’t so distinctive after all, where beauty has faded under the pavement of oversize parking lots and the grinding realities of life in rural America.
At the center of Tharp’s tale is Donna Bless, supermarket cashier. Ever since her husband, Jack, was killed in an apparent home invasion gone awry, Donna’s life has been a chaos of booze, drugs, and one-night stands. Her sons, Nelson and Wesley, have been left to shift for themselves. They often come home to an empty house, where "the lights were shut off and around the floor and on the tables lay splayed magazines and half-empty glasses and caked plates." Searching one night through the debris for their mother, the boys find instead "a note on the refrigerator: ‘Spaghetti-Os in the cupboard.’ "
Donna Bless’s fatherless, and now motherless, boys cope in different ways. Nelson, a grade-schooler, longs to move in with his friend Ragel, whose large family looks to him like an oasis of domesticity. Wesley, older than Nelson, tries to fill the vacant shoes of authority. He works two jobs and plays nursemaid to his mother when she stumbles home late at night.
Things go from bad to worse in the Bless household when Donna falls into a relationship with Roy Dale. Roy is the kind of man who tortures animals with burning branches and follows teenage girls around town in his old pickup, hoping to score. He’s a talker too, filling Donna’s ear with tales of a horse ranch he doesn’t own and luring solidly responsible Wesley into a marijuana-selling scheme.
Tharp does a masterful job with the Bless family’s seduction by Roy Dale. Blinded by the loss of a husband and father, they are easy prey for a low-class con man. Yet the novel doesn’t end in nihilism. Enter Sam Casey, backwoods marijuana farmer, former member of the "Sunshine People," 1960s-style idealist – and a foil for Roy Dale. As the Blesses gradually emerge from the spell Roy has cast over them, Sam Casey steps in, becoming a father figure to the boys and a possible love interest for Donna.
Written in rambling, low-punctuation prose that is still engagingly readable, Falling Dark was the 1999 winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. The book is sharply polarized between good and evil, yet it is peopled with detailed, realistic characters that resist easy stereotypes. Tharp’s only misstep is in crafting too pat an outcome for Roy Dale. He is last seen wandering in the Oklahoma woods during a blizzard, "a beer in one hand and the remnants of the six-pack swinging from the other," searching for buried treasure.