With her eagerly awaited second novel, Tawni O'Dell takes readers back to the coal-mining country of western Pennsylvania. Set in a town ravaged and haunted by a mine explosion that took the lives of 96 men, Coal Run explores the life of local deputy and erstwhile football legend, "The Great Ivan Z.," as he prepares for a former teammate's imminent release from prison. As the week unfolds and Ivan struggles to confront his demons, he reveals himself to be a man whose conscience is burdened by a long-held and shocking secret.
O'Dell (Back Roads) explores the dynamics of a tiny Pennsylvania coal-mining town in her probing, heartbreaking second novel, which centers on the fortunes of former college football hero Ivan Zoschenko. The novel literally opens with a bang in a flashback that recalls the tragic underground explosion that took the life of Zoschenko's father and killed 96 other men from Coal Run. Some 15 years later, just after Zoschenko is drafted by the Chicago Bears, his knee is crushed in an accident in the same mines. His subsequent fall from grace is long and hard; he moves to Florida, hits the bars and works as an exterminator. He returns home only when he hears that Reese Raynor, a former schoolmate who beat his wife, Crystal, into a coma, is being released from prison. Despite his drinking problem, Zoschenko is hired as a deputy by the local sheriff, getting back in touch with his gorgeous sister, a single mom and career waitress; his boyhood hero, now a reclusive Vietnam vet; Reese's troubled twin brother, Jesse; and Crystal, who is still comatose and reminds Zoschenko of a shameful incident in his past. That past is linked to Reese Raynor's, and the novel builds to the inevitable brutal collision of the two men. O'Dell's portrait of Zoschenko is deep and penetrating, but even more moving is her portrayal of the coal-town community. Ravaged by disaster and callous corporate treatment, the citizens of Coal Run still can't imagine any other life. As Zoschenko puts it, "Long before became the site of so much death, it had been a source of life for all of us. For me it was the closest thing I had to God." Though it occasionally flirts with sentimentality, this is a fierce, sharply drawn and richly sympathetic tribute to working-class America.