Contrary, West Virginia, a sleepy town with failing coal mines, has an urgent need for revenue. A federal grant for a non-existent bus system meets that need, until a government auditor consumes too much white lightning and dies under mysterious circumstances. When the Department of Transportation sends Owen Allison to sort things out, Owen decides to let the phony bus subsidy continue until another body surfaces and Owen fears that he may be the next to die.
Billheimer's impressive debut tells a funny, sometimes touching story about governmental bumbling and Appalachian poverty and resourcefulness. National Department of Transportation investigator Owen Allison, a West Virginia native, is assigned the unwelcome task of completing an audit begun by a colleague who met with a fatal "accident" in the little town of Contrary, W.Va. Contrary, Owen quickly discovers, has been the recipient of unintentional governmental largess: an extra zero on a grant application turned Contrary's initial request for two buses into a request for 20. The mistakenly awarded grant, with continuing funding for support, has turned Contrary into a contented town--except for Hatfield McCoy, a disabled citizen who keeps firing off disgruntled letters about Contrary's bus service. Contrary's attempts to retain the funds are guided by its folksy mayor, Purvis Jenkins, and his sister, town belle Mary Beth. Well-developed subplots include Mary Beth's coal-mining ex-husband's battle with alcoholism and black-lung disease, Owen's struggle with his political boss and a sheriff with a yen for Mary Beth and nasty plans for Owen. Owen's future as a sleuth is uncertain at story's end, but Billheimer's writing prospects seem assured.