David Connerley Nahm
Two Dollar Radio
208 Pages; Print, $16.00
Whenever I return to my Mom’s house in my Indiana hometown, which connects by bridge to Louisville, Kentucky, I often retrieve the mail and sift through it before anyone else in the household. Like many others, I imagine, sometimes my Mom receives missing person postcards. On these cards is information about the person and a photo of him or her prior to the disappearance, and, due to technological advances, there is also a Photoshopped picture that shows what s/he is expected to look like currently. Most of the time I give a passing glance to these postcards before I throw them away. Occasionally, however, I’ll sit at the island in the kitchen and study one of them—wonder who this person was, if s/he is out there, if s/he is alive. The cynic in me assumes the worst, but I still recognize the glimmer of hope, the glimmer that must keep those involved searching for their loved ones no matter how many years have passed, a search that they trust will yield closure of some kind or another. No matter the individual circumstances, the missing person narrative is compelling, and that narrative is what you’ll find in David Connerley Nahm’s debut novel, Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky.
Protagonist Leah Shepherd enjoyed a relatively normal childhood until her younger brother and only sibling, Jacob, disappeared one Sunday morning before church. Those left behind must move on, of course, and now Leah lives in Crow Station, Kentucky where she directs a non-profit that gives aid to women and children of low socioeconomic status. What, if anything, are the implications of the Biblical names bestowed on these characters? Jacob was the son of Isaac, whom he deceived in order to claim the birthright of his older brother, Esau, then fled and dreamt of Jacob’s Ladder, eventually wrestling an angel to procure a blessing. Leah was Jacob’s first wife, though he originally wanted Rachel, his second wife, instead. But what is just as striking, if not more so, is Leah’s last name—Shepherd, a person who watches over others and intervenes when necessary. While Leah experiences unwarranted guilt from Jacob’s disappearance, she is able to make amends, in a sense, by tending to others in need. Not all goes well, however, as her selflessness in caring for an elderly woman, who alters her will to include Leah, causes the woman’s children to suspect foul play. Leah Shepherd has not led and does not lead an easy life.
What Nahm does from the standpoint of narrative is glimpse Leah in the present day, and he intersperses those scenes with flashbacks centering on her family, observations of others in this small town, and descriptions of the setting. The book itself does this too, insofar as it contains, here and there, fossil sketches from Henry Nettelroth’s Kentucky Fossil Shells: A Monograph of the Fossil Shells of the Silurian and Devonian Rocks of Kentucky (1889). Thus, the title’s significance emerges:
The Commonwealth of Kentucky was once an ocean. Not a land of bluegrass but an endless expanse of blue waves, waters full of indescribably creepy creatures that frisked and scuttled below the surface of a sea that was ancient even then, but over time the waters receded and the dead of those obscure monstrosities slumbering on the floor were battered and crushed by currents to grains and granules. Trilobites, brachiopods, gastropods, crinoids, edrioasteroids. Crushed and crushed and crushed.
It would seem Nahm’s subtext here is that nothing is ever lost—changed, maybe, but never gone completely. One can’t help but think that, someday, somewhere, someone or something will find Jacob. This realization wouldn’t console the Shepherd family, but the point remains.
Even so, some might claim that the narrative’s meandering nature distracts and detracts from the matter at hand: What happened to him? Nahm provides some evidence to placate those who prefer closure, but he appears to acknowledge in the prologue that this...