Complicity and Shame: Ann Pancake’s “Arsonists”

Lois Dodd, "Burning House, Yellow Smoke" (2007: oil on linen)

Ann Pancake’s “Arsonists” was a story that made me work for it.  I had to read it four times, copy chunks of the text into my dual-entry journal, then go back over my journal entries with two colors of highlighter to see if I could figure out what was really happening in the story.

The story centers on the relationship between two retired coal miners, Dell (the protagonist) and Kenny, a childhood friend who has become mentally ill.  Dell is forced to postpone a trip to the Washington, D.C. area for his granddaughter’s birthday to deal with one of Kenny’s “episodes”:  Kenny believes that the local coal company is going to blow up his house, and he’s going to turn his wheelchair into a suicide bomb and take them out first.  In preparing to go to Kenny, Dell thinks back over the shift from strip-mining to mountaintop removal mining, and a series of mysterious episodes of arson in local houses bought out by the company. 

The story’s title and three apparently significant passages raised a particularly difficult question for me:  Who were the arsonists, and were Kenny and Dell complicit in the arson episodes?

The first of the three passages, each involving a “hole” opening in Dell, occurs when Dell remembers the early days of local mountaintop removal coal mining:

“…watching the horizon dissolve in linked eruptions like the fire-cracker strings him and Kenny’d a couple times got hold of as kids.  Blasts thunder-clapped the wishbone of his chest, and the rock dust taste was familiar in his mouth.  Dell looked on at first in disbelief and even awe – it was nothing fancy they used, ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, exactly how Tim McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City at about the same time – but quick that turned to outrage and frustration, and finally, helplessness and grief.  Which was at last, Dell understood now, a different kind of awe.  Brimstone, the word would come to Dell, he couldn’t help it.  It came on its own in the taste of the rocks.  And through it all, the hole opening in him.  The hole small at its mouth, but boring deeper, deeper.  Craving always to be filled.”

The second passage in which Dell thinks about the “hole” is one in which he remembers the decision he made with his late wife Carol not to relocate when mountaintop removal mining began. They decided to stay at a time when “the afternoon [had] just reached that moment when it’s time to turn on the lights.  The minute they made it definite, there came in Dell a peculiar painful rightness that he recalled from when he was a kid, back when he used to bang his head against his bed frame, against walls, usually out of anger, occasionally to salve a shame.  And for a day or two, the little hole hushed its yearning.”

The final “hole” passage is particularly mysterious.  It refers back to a time when the local men were standing guard over the houses which had not been burned in an attempt to catch the arsonists:

“It had been on one of those watch nights before the Mast house burned…that Kenny had said it.  Coming on toward dawn, and them meeting up to share a cigarette after guarding separate houses all night, they heard the clunk of the monster bucket in the distance overhead, and the hish of dead earth poured over the hillside.  Kenny said it just once, and in the dark.  Said it not as a question, didn’t risk contradiction or conversation.  ‘What we did, Dell,’ he said.  ‘It wasn’t like this here.’”

Later, Dell recalls what Kenny had said.

“But to blow the top off a mountain.  It wasn’t like this here.  Still, by now Dell understands the little hole inside him, boring down, down, farther than he knew he went, yearning always to be plugged.  And all Dell can do is pull a screen across it.”

These three passages suggested that something was eating at Dell – some guilt or shame, perhaps over having done something he had cause to regret.  Still, there were no obvious indicators that Dell and Kenny had been setting the fires.  The understanding of the locals, that the coal company was behind the arson incidents in an effort to frighten the remaining residents to sell out cheap, seemed to be correct:

“The arsonists couldn’t be caught, even though there was a clear design, never did a lived-in house ignite, always the deserted company-owned ones, and usually those houses targeted were some distance from inhabited homes; only once did a fire jump to a place where people lived.  The mysteriousness of it all terrorized everyone even worse, and more people sold, just like the company wanted.  If they couldn’t shake them out, they’d burn them out….But every house burned was company property, just like county law was company property, just like state law was.  When some official finally arrived to investigate, the company was behind that, too.”

What, then, was bothering Dell?  What had caused Kenny’s post-traumatic-stress-disorder type incidents?

Lacking a better starting place, and knowing that setting matters in a good West Virginia story, I decided to see what images might be recurring in the setting of “Arsonists.”  Sure enough, just as the old Godhigh house was a significant metaphor in “Idols,” houses were a recurring motif in “Arsonists.”  Four types of houses stood out:  those burned in the town of Tout, Kenny’s house, Dell’s house, and the housing development that Dell’s son Jason has built in northern Virginia.

The houses of Tout have become an anthropomorphic ghost town, suggesting the effect that mountaintop removal mining has had on Kenny:

Mountaintop Removal Mining“Then he is stuttering past the padlocked beige trailer that was the Tout post office, past the old gas station/grocery store with its window shattered into webs, and – here and there, rotten teeth among the sound ones – the burned-down homes….Some of the houses are just scorched, their windows like blackened eyes.  Others went full blaze, gaping open now, their charred rooms exposed – a pitiful vulgarity to it, Dell can’t help but feel.  Others are nothing but steps climbing to rubble-cluttered concrete slabs.  The kudzu already covering.  Overhead, the flattened hills roll in dead slumps, like men’s bodies cold-cocked.  That’s how Dell sees them when he brings himself to look – like men knocked out.  The humps of their twisted shoulders, their arms and legs drunk-flung.  Sprouting their sharp foreign grass.”

In his periodic episodes of mental illness, Kenny is delusional, especially about his house.  On the phone, Dell tells Kenny that “they ain’t yet burned one with people still in it.” Kenny replies:  “This house is worth so much they don’t got the money to put an offer on it.”  However, the reader is told that no one, not even the coal company, has made Kenny an offer on his property – despite the fact that the house is fairly new and unusually large and attractive for the area (trust me on this one if you don’t want to drive down to Logan to see for yourself): 

“It’s a big four-bedroom.  Single-story, but rangy and imposing, built against the steep hill with a grand high deck on two sides.  Painted a two-tone blue, baby for the walls, navy for the trim, and a full basement, a two-car garage.  It makes the house that was up here before, the one Kenny’s grandma lived in, look like a goat shed.  Makes the houses him and Kenny grew up in down in Tout in the forties and fifties look that way, too.  But Dell can see, if he squints through the half-leaved autumn trees, the mine, crunching away to the horizon like Satan’s gravel pit.  The house, the bit of woodland around it, the sweep of yard that Becky cuts with the ride mower, Becky and Kenny themselves – they are surrounded on three sides.  Living inside a nutcracker’s vee.”

The ugly mine surrounding the property is one reason that its value doesn’t equal its beauty.  Although Kenny has made repairs, like others in the town of Tout, his house has sustained blast damage:

“By then, a lot of the properties were good and blast-busted, with walls cracked, ceilings dropping, foundations split.  Wells knocked dry.  By the time the offers came, the homeowners had been told by the Department of Environmental Protection that they couldn’t prove the damage hadn’t been there before the blasting started, and no one had the lawyer money to argue with them, so many people sold, even at the pathetic prices offered them.  If their houses weren’t shot, their nerves were, and those who could start over, did.”

Dell has not sold his house because he could not afford to start over.  He could not even remove the residue of mountaintop removal mining from his house with a rented power washer:  “…the splatty roar of the spray, the expense of the rental, and still the dust sticking like paint.”  He and Carol discuss and argue, but decide to stay:

“Bottom line was, Dell was pushing sixty, had taken early retirement, and where were their life savings?  Right there in the house.  Like a big pile of money blowing away littler and littler with every explosion, every dust cloud, every coal truck crashing through town.”

The houses that Kenny’s son Jason has built offer a striking contrast to the houses of Tout, but are equally unattractive in their own way: 

“…acre after acre of immaculate vacant homes, bulked up and bulging on undersized lots.  The streets deliberately unstraight, snake-tailing into dead ends that made no sense, the area everywhere treeless, hill-less.”  Dell gets carsick for the first time in his life.  “By this time, they’d reached the outermost ring of the maze, where houses still under construction stood half-naked in their pressed woodchip skins, their Tyvek wraps.  Dell stepped out and breathed deep:  odor of raw lumber, fresh-poured concrete, and something chemical he could not name.” 

Returning to the inciting incident of the story, we learn that the ritual that Kenny and Dell repeatedly play out involves checking out former real and imaginary blast cracks:  above the refrigerator.  In the ceiling.  Broken windows replaced.  Fractures behind photos in the hall.  Finally the men enter the bedroom, “Dell cringing with the queasiness he always feels in other people’s rooms with beds unmade.”  Dell is approaching the heart of Kenny’s delusion, and it makes him uncomfortable.  The tour concludes in Kenny’s closet, where the retired miner imagines there are scorch marks from a coal company arsonist blast test.  He claims that there’s a three-mile-long fuse with the end laid right under the bedroom.

This closet, where things are hidden, kept inside, is the end of the tour.  It’s the heart of Kenny’s paranoia, and the reason for Dell’s discomfort with it lies there.  Shame.  Complicity in something beyond Kenny’s madness.  But why?  The images of houses alone don’t answer the question of Kenny and Dell’s complicity and guilt in the arson incidents and in Kenny’s mental illness.  It’s necessary to look elsewhere – to examine the other significant images that arise in the setting of the story: light and dark.  In “Arsonists,” these images do not operate in a typical way (light = good, dark = bad).

Light, in “Arsonists,” is artificial.

Mountaintop removal mining creates an artificial darkness, which is only alleviated by artificial light:  “In the worst of the blasting, dust stormed the hollow so thick Dell couldn’t see Sam Sears’s house across the road, and everybody’d had to burn their headlights, their house lights, right through the middle of the day.”

Dell and Carol’s discussion about leaving Tout is also cached in images of darkness and artificial light:  “Discussed it, argued it, full-on fought.  Lying in bed of a night in the silver glitter of the lights on the mine, Carol crumpling Dell’s hand under her chin.”  When they decide to stay, it is just at the time of afternoon when it’s necessary to turn on the lights.

The source of artificial darkness and artificial light is coal.  “He drives by the barred haul road to the shutdown part of the mine, the guard shack plywooded over, the sign beside it peppered with pellets:  COAL KEEPS THE LIGHTS ON.  The last couple places him and Kenny worked, they passed every shift a sign that said that, too.”

Variants of this slogan are plastered on billboards all over the state of West Virginia.  I didn’t think to count them when I was home week before last, but there must have been dozens.

The light started to come on for me when I tied the images of artificial darkness and light and the way that COAL KEEPS THE LIGHTS ON to the mysterious conversation between Kenny and Dell.  In the closet with Kenny, Dell thinks about their shared past in strip mining:

“And after years in tunnels, what it meant to get up on top, nothing about to fall on you, the machines doing all the heavy work, no more black dust.  To be up out of the dark.  And they’d been proud of what they did, they made America’s electricity.”

That is the mysterious thing that Dell and Kenny did, the thing in which they’re complicit.  They mined coal to satisfy America’s appetite for cheap electricity.  Strip mining was ugly, but it was far more environmentally defensible than mountaintop removal and far better for those miners whose jobs were not replaced by machines.  In the dark, Kenny tells Dell:  what they did – strip mining – wasn’t like blowing up a mountain.

With this insight, it’s possible to understand Dell’s memories of a visit to Jason and his granddaughter Amanda, a visit cut short two days by one of Kenny’s episodes.  Dell wakes at 4AM: 

“…he feared at first he’d overslept, light as it was outside, until he understood it was the condo complex’s security lights….as he loaded the Metro under floodlights, there stirred in him an uneasiness mingled with awe.  Then he was passing under the streetlights that canopied the suburb’s four-lane main drag; the gas stations, office buildings, stores, sidewalks, and the street itself were completely peopleless, him the single car, and all of it, everywhere, lit bright as an emergency room.”

And then it changes to noise (what Kenny remembers most from the arson incidents, what impressed him more than the light of the fires or the smell of burning):  “…suddenly, the light turned to sound.  The strip malls first – they burst into roar, a crowd in his head – and then the box stores, Target and Home Depot and Sam’s, them louder yet, squalling and hollering bald blares of light.  Among them the fast-food places, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Sonic, each shrieking light, and then the quaint and quietful places – coffee shops, boutiques.  Dell heard them, too, hissing their squander of light….And then he was out and onto the highway, hurtling south and west, toward home, his body easing, his breath coming catch-up in his chest – when he heard, from the near distance in what used to be fields, the wailing flare of subdivisions, each one, he knew, either uninhabited or asleep.  Yet each one haloed in a great conflagration of light.”

2001 light pollution map by 3DaveL

The light pollution, the wanton destruction of the environment in the pursuit of cheap electricity, is equated to the arson incidents by a key word here:  conflagration.

Who is complicit in the environmental and human disaster of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, then?  The coal companies are, certainly.  Kenny and Dell and their fellow coal miners are.  And you and I, demanding consumers of cheap and plentiful electricity, are the most complicit of all. 

In her essay “A Home Before the End of the World,” Adelheid Fischer makes an excellent case that writers of fiction should be precise and accurate in their use of details from the world around them.  Her emphasis is on the correct naming of the details of natural history:  geology, flora, fauna.  I had thought to hold Ann Pancake’s story “Arsonists” up against  Fischer’s standard to see how well she “did” West Virginia, but in the end what resonated most for me from the comparison was this:

“Names are the alphabetic fragments with which we build a language of knowing. And knowing opens up the possibility of caring, the root of which is the Old English cearu, which means to guard or watch, ‘to trouble oneself.’ In the face of the planetary holocaust, troubling ourselves is nothing short of an ethical charge. For writers it means, at the very least, taking the time to get the ecological details right on the page….It means swearing a pledge of allegiance to the particulars of the world, to rendering the actual….

“How we use words to portray the world in acts of imagination is a serious matter. Metaphors have the power to structure attitudes that express themselves in actions.”

If you’d like to learn more about mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia, please use the cheap electricity supplied to your computer to check out the excellent links on Ann Pancake’s web site

I look forward to reading her novel and other stories that she has written.


About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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