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  • Holding On To Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne
  • Karen Salyer McElmurray (bio)
Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne . Holding On To Nothing. Durham, N.C.: Blair, 2019. 272 pages. Hardcover. $25.95.

Years back, I heard a lecture by novelist Charles Baxter called "Making the Ordinary Extraordinary and the Extraordinary Ordinary in Fiction." Holding On To Nothing's ordinary world is a small east Tennessee town. I've been gone for too many years from my own small hometown in eastern Kentucky, and the pages of Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne's debut novel take me back there with an ache I recognize. I know the world this book summons inside and out. Its sound of cicadas, "their steady, pulsating drone, punctuated by the maraca shakes of katydids." Its people, the church ladies with their casserole dishes. The town has its Walmart and an ammunition plant for jobs. There's also whiskey at Judy's Bar on a Saturday night, a place where music drifts out into the packed parking lot and loving makes the world fine, but just for a spell. [End Page 92]

In the background of this ordinary world, one senses strictures about how life ought to be. There's the ought-to for women, for families, for living right. Gossip dies hard about hard-living families, and young women who make the wrong choices end up the subject of speculation, not to mention the consequences of their actions. It's that kind of ordinariness which at one point in my life sent me on as many highways out as I could find. I wanted more, be it via places or people or ways of seeing and believing that home wouldn't allow me. Wanting out—or not wanting out—is at the heart of Holding On To Nothing.

The central characters in Shelburne's page-turner are a product of such complex wishing. Lucy Kilgore tries "to live that dream" of heading to the city, to go to college, but also to find a happy ending. She keeps herself "moving forward, working hard, and caring about something" so she won't end up with nothing better than what she has. Lucy finds herself pregnant after one night when "whisky obliterated every objection she ordinarily would have had" and she ends up in the back seat of a Camaro with Jeptha Taylor, a talented mandolin player who "spends his days drunk and wild." Lucy clearly sees that "the wild joy of the moment [has] evaporated as quickly as rain off the summer sidewalk." Jeptha, who has loved Lucy since he was sixteen, knows well enough how lives can end up. His mother's dream was to "make the future something other than an unedited rewrite of the past." And there they are, their dreams playing out like a bad hand, bound to the ordinary worlds they have always known.

Back in my own eastern Kentucky days, I drank my share of bootleg whiskey and railed against the world that made me, but I also remember moments of such precarious beauty. [End Page 93] Rose-colored dresses at the thrift store for a quilt I made. The walls of a house I saw painted with scenes from the Book of Revelations. Sketching by a creek with a water-color artist I loved but couldn't have. Moments of beauty, tenderness even. I wanted more of those moments in Holding On To Nothing, be they in glimpses of the land or in snatches of conversation with elders. Sometimes the ordinary, the just-might but not quite in this novel makes me feel like I can't breathe. Jeptha just might be able to take on the terrifying responsibility of being a better man than the men he grew up with. That just might is a low-down country song on a humid summer night, the sound of those cicadas whirring from the trees through a rolled down car window. And that may be the point at the heart of this ordinary world.

In the end, though, songs are the thing that lift Holding On To Nothing up and make it extraordinary. When he's a boy, Jeptha hears a mandolin and the...


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pp. 92-94
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