The Weight of Blood (2014), by Laura McHugh

McHugh begins her (first) novel with the discovery of  the mutilated body of Cheri Stoddard, a sweet, somewhat retarded girl and friend of one of the narrators, Lucy Dane. But Cheri’s story, it turns out, is less important than Lucy’s attempt to unravel the mystery of her mother’s, Lila’s, death shortly after Lucy’s birth. That is, Cheri’s death is part of a larger mystery.

As an Ozarks book, The Weight of Blood is rather good with flora and fauna and what might be called historical lore. Did you know, for instance, that a cat will suckle a newborn ’possum, or that hogs go crazy for persimmons? On the other hand, McHugh’s characterizations of men are kind of stereotypical: the good ones are passive and go along with what women want, while the men who are bad, and they are very bad, are sexually violent and depraved.

Apparently, though they might claim otherwise, people eat this stuff up.

Chief  among the latter sort of man is Lucy’s Uncle Crete, a clever-but-brutal businessman with many an ugly rumor trailing him, including that he runs a backwoods white slavery—one might as well say, white trash—operation between the little town of Henbane and Springfield. McHugh mostly just hints darkly about this operation, but her sex scenes, including a rape, are graphic and well done. In fact, though McHugh’s men don’t ring altogether true, the way in which her women relate to them is intimate and affecting.

As for the women, McHugh pulls off the rather unusual feat of narrating her story from the points of view of both Lila and Lucy, mother and daughter, twenty years apart, and they are convincingly different. Lucy has grown up in a stable environment, raised by her single dad, Carl—Clete’s brother. She’s a typical teenager in some ways, with boys on the brain and college in her future, and she has a nice young man, Daniel, to accompany her in her sleuthing.

Lila, on the other hand, is a portrait in desperation. She’s an orphan from Iowa with no resources, and signs up for a kind of indenture in southern Missouri. She’s strikingly beautiful and that’s her appeal for Crete, who wants her for himself at first and then tries to turn her into a prostitute. Luckily for her, Carl wants to marry her, which will lend respectability to Lucy’s birth. But Lila will die anyhow in a dramatic confrontation, brilliantly staged in an old moonshiner’s cave. Some allusions here, intentional or not, to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Lucy, who reminds one just a little of a Nancy Drew caught up a world full of debauchery, solves her mystery, and grows up some, too, as she unravels all the secrets about her mother, and learns why they were secret. This is not my kind of story, because I don’t like how McHugh portrays men and don’t often read mysteries, but what do I know?  On amazon, The Weight of Blood boasts—count them—518 reader reviews. That’s extraordinary.



Down Along the Piney, reviewed by Timothy J. Bazzett (amazon)

Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 starsMort at the top of his game. Immediately relevant. Loved every one of these stories!

By Timothy J. Bazzett on October 11, 2018

Format: Paperback

First things first: every one of these stories is first class fiction, and I loved ’em all. It is such a pity that short story collections are such a hard sell in the book industry, because these stories are WORTH READING and WORTH YOUR TIME!

I first discovered John Mort’s work about five years ago when I picked up a used copy of his first novel, SOLDIER IN PARADISE (SMU Press, 1999). Although I was late in finding it, I was blown away by the book. Since then I’ve read a couple more Mort books (GOAT BOY OF THE OZARKS and THE ILLEGAL), both very good. And now I’ve read the latest, DOWN ALONG THE PINEY: OZARKS STORIES (his fourth short story collection), and, as I’ve already indicated, every story in it is simply superb, and I was hooked from the first page. “Pitchblende” gives us “the Colonel,” a crazed Korean War veteran, bulldozing a Missouri mountain top in a futile search for uranium while his family disintegrates around him. The story’s narrator is his son, Michael, looking back years later, at memories of shooting rats at the local landfill, his mother going back to school and gradually drifting away, and his own wonder and puzzlement at having survived his tour in Vietnam, where several of his high school classmates died –

“I was a warrant officer. I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and i was never touched.”

And then there is “The Hog Whisperer,” in which Mort gives us Carrie Kreider, an autistic “backward, and unusually large, country girl,” who “was gifted, it turned out,” and won a full scholarship to Kansas State, where her master’s thesis was “on how containment hog operations could be more humane.” A huge Texas farm conglomerate hires her to research how to “make hog s**t smell sweet.” There’s more, of course, as Carrie tries to negotiate the pitfalls of men’s cruelty and the mysteries of falling in love. It’s simply a lovely little story in which Mort might have been channeling the inner life of Temple Grandin.

“Red Rock Valley” makes a sharp turn into the inner life of a lonely homosexual, his partner long gone, succumbed to AIDS, as he returns home, where his father is dying. Robert ‘Killer’ Coogan is the emotionally damaged veteran in “Behind Enemy Lines,” living on a river island in an old school bus with a wolf as his only companion. Bad teeth force him out of his isolation to a VA hospital, where he discovers, as one of his companions calls it, “Money for nothing … Good as it gets.”

“The Book Club” explores the lives of a sect of women outcasts, ex-cons, unfit mothers and misfits, with murmurs of Shirley Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery.” And “Mariposa” gives us an intimate look into the tough times of a migrant worker family, forced to return to Mexico, as seen through the eyes of a teen daughter, U.S. born, who cannot adjust.

But of the thirteen stories presented here, the centerpiece – and the longest, at fifty pages – is unquestionably “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him,” a look inside a Jim Jones-like, utopian, wilderness Ozarks community of assorted evangelicals, militant survivalists, crazies and hangers-on founded by a retired army sergeant known only as “Top.” The toxic mix of guns, religion and fanatacism come to a boil and erupt in murder and the stalking of a political candidate with a shady, criminal past. This is a story that has immediate relevance in our country’s current atmosphere of hate and division. Mort has peopled it with very believable and human characters, especially young Birdy Blevins, a former drug addict ‘rescued’ by Top, who becomes, first, an emaciated Christ-figure in a Passion Play tableau put on for tourists in the New Jerusalem settlement, and, finally, the cop-killing “Jesus Boy,” the object of an interstate man-hunt.

John Mort is at the top of his game with these latest stories. I’ll say it again. I loved every one of them. My very highest recommendation.

– Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER