Tomorrow, to our delight, Lookout Books will publish Honey from the Lion, the debut novel of Matthew Neill Null. The novel travels the same West Virginian logging terrain as “The Slow Lean of Time,” the stunner of a story we published in our Spring 2014 issue (if you would like to read that story, you can pick up a copy in our store; choose Issue 57 from among the back issues).
Like “The Slow Lean of Time,” Honey from the Lion employs a sweeping omniscient narration almost Victorian in its scope. Null wields this bold perspective skillfully, entering freely into the intersecting lives of a catholic range of characters, from the three powerful congressmen—the “distant gods” of the loggers’ world—who first grasped the economic potential of those vast Virginian forests when they marched through them as young soldiers in the Civil War, to the traveling Syrian peddler who sells dirty postcards and Bibles to the timber wolves in the logging camps, and books and gentle philosophy to the melancholy preacher in the scrappy town below them.
“You drag your faith through the world like a chain” the peddler tells Pastor Luke Seldomridge, and though the narrative is shot through with humor, there is something of that weighty nobility to all the laborers who crowd this vibrant book with their sweat and their heart. Honey from the Lion tells a grand story: of work, and love, and sex; of faith and doubt, jealousy and revolution; of politics and unions; of industry and sloth, luck, and great misfortune. But it is intimate in its approach to the individual. The hopes and failures of timber wolf Cur Greathouse, Null’s modest hero, are presented with the same reverence as are the awful transformations of time. As Seldomridge tells his shrinking congregation, “We are made in the image of a great disenchantment.” This novel, from which we are pleased here to present an excerpt, celebrates the greatness in that disenchantment.
Excerpt from Honey from the Lion, by Matthew Neill Null
For years, Cur lived on the Cheat River, where three soldiers once linked arms around a ghostly tree. They were the distant gods of his smallish world. This was in the high timber camp called Blackpine.
Once, in the fall of 1904, he killed a blue heron that was hunting the Cheat River shallows, while the other loggers, the timber wolves, silently cheered him on. The heron held its bill like a spear for the sun-flash of fish. High-stepping the waters. An eye too sharp to overlook him or any threat. Any second it would fly. Cur reached down without looking and tested the heft of what his hand found there, a hatchet-shaped chunk of stone. When the heron paused and, in a barely perceptible motion, braced its muscles to fly, Cur lobbed overhand—saw the stone peak in the sun and, tumbling, fall—and the great bird folded in on itself. Cur splashed out, and cool river water leapt from his legs. The other timber wolves counted off forty paces, hooted admiration. No one minded getting wet, not for this. Scaly legs rasped against Cur’s palms, which lifted a body the length of a child’s. He put his other hand under the neck’s slender stem. The heron’s chest was gashed. It had a yellow cat’s eye and a crown of two black feathers pinned back from the brow. They marveled. You could try a thousand times and not do it again. How could a sly heron be killed like that?
Cur, the wolves answered themselves. Another man could hardly take one with a bored rifle. Cur was lucky, and maybe always would be. They loved him for it. Duckweed pooled richly about their legs.
“You going to eat that pullet?” asked McBride, the teamster, in that storm-cloud hat. Where they stood in the river wasn’t far from the railroad siding. The wolves of Camp Five began to assemble in their hundreds, waiting to be carried into the town the absentees had built for them. McBride gestured at the heron, then shook his head, like a man biting down into a drumstick.
“Maybe,” said Cur. “You got the seasoning?”
“She might taste a wee froggy.”
The rail ran flush to the river, in the same sinuous curves. Cur dropped the bird in weeds and eelgrass. All animals seem smaller when they’re dead. Its coiled neck was lank and obscene.
Cur receded into silence, as they knew he would now and then, slipping back into himself from his easy, joking ways. He seemed to know something they didn’t, and they hungered for his attention, his high opinion. Cur was a native, like most of the wolves, near cousins, why, nearly blood.
While the others talked of birds, Cur felt a hot needle of shame. He hadn’t meant to hit the heron. Flinging the stone was just a caprice. He wasn’t a violent man—an odd thing, considering what he and his partners planned on doing in the world. This evening, he was being sent to purchase weaponry and other tools of revolution. He chose to believe what Vance Church told him, that these implements were for the defense of the striking logger: not for the firebombing of office buildings, not for Helena Bridge, not for any needless act. Now others, like Amos Church, said that senators and governors must die. Topple the steeples. Amos had lived in Chicago and other angry red cities. The old doubts rose in Cur.
There was no reason for what he’d done to the heron, except to sling a rock in sun, show he could, glean the praise of others. Cur hadn’t killed an animal in an awfully long time. He had never killed a man. That’s what really changed you. Animals only change you a little. He might have to change, and soon.
All heads turned to the piping of a distant train. An unsteady black pillar rose in the sky. Cur cast one backward glance at the heron. He could still feel the weight of its body in his hands.
Excerpted from Honey from the Lion Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Neill Null. Used by permission of Lookout Books, an imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. All rights reserved.
Go to Lookout Books to learn more about Honey from the Lion and take advantage of a special discount for American Short Fiction readers. Enter the promotional code “ASF” on the Payment Methods screen to get the novel for just $13.50.
Matthew Neill Null is a winner of the O. Henry Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize in short fiction, and has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center and the Michener-Copernicus Society of America. Honey From The Lion is his first novel; his story collection, Allegheny Front, is forthcoming from Sarabande in May 2016. He coordinates the Writing Fellowship program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.