Murder and Suicide on the Appalachian Trail

I mean, it’s not actually called that, but it should be.

Oh. Spoiler alert. In the title. I’m not sorry.This whole post will be a spoiler, and yet it won’t matter because reading Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail is an experience, not just words to paper. I mean, just words to paper, but spacing and style and sectioning count (things that I find stylistically very appealing).

Caution: Don’t idly read on the beach while your friendzoned best friend is rubbing sunscreen on your back. Or maybe that’s the perfect time to read this. I’m not sure. At 195 pages, if you’re a voracious reader, you can finish it in one sitting. If you are a growing writer taking lessons, read it all the way through once and then again very slowly. There is a lot, as a writer, to learn from this book. There is a lot, as a reader, to learn from this book (mostly, death is never the answer, which happens to be the very last line).

Do you know how many people die in this book? It would give George R.R. Martin a run for his money, and it’s less than 200 pages. And it’s all kinds of death — it’s death by dementia, death by murder, death by addiction, and death by love. We’re talking figurative death and real death. Bodies tumbling over cliffs. Handguns to the temple. Needles to the veins.

Funnily enough, the novel is about living.

I have this dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’ve held this dream in my heart for several years now, and I feel it coming for me. I have no idea if I’ll succeed, but if I fail, it will be spectacularly. One character, Taz Chavis, succeeds. Two others, Simone and Richard, fail spectacularly. Granted, I don’t want to fail by throwing myself off a cliff, but exaggeration serves its purpose here.

There are these three hikers, but there are more: Leona, holding onto the memories of her husband when he was young as he lives his final days as an in-human. Dalton, who wants to be a father more than anything, and Deirdre who refuses to have a baby and brings an adoption catalog instead. Giuseppe, who wants to officially be a part of his lover’s life and trades a threesome with an 18 year old for his name on all the titles. He doesn’t care about the money — he just wants to be recognized. All of these lives, these questions of birth and death but mostly of those lives in-between, the late twenties through fifties where life is so muddled and unknown, even for those whose lives seem so straight (Simone the genetic scientist, Deirdre the ambitious postmaster) and ultimately heartbreaking.

Yes, I cried. I cried because I realized that life doesn’t actually get any easier. You might finally figure out who you are, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. And how do you change it? Is change even possible? Simone had come to the conclusion that every single human had one gene that made them flawed, and this genetic flaw was inescapable. Taz — you could say he escaped it — all the death, the addiction, prison — while Simone, Richard, and even Giuseppe, they gave into it.

Is change possible? What constitutes change? Is when you’re dying the only time you actually live? And what do you do when you find out that the person you are is not someone you like at all?

Feel free to offer some answers to these questions. I sure as hell have no idea.


Beyond the story itself, I want to talk about the book. Here is a quote from A.M. Homes cited on the back of the book:

T.J Forrester’s narrative explores the weird heart of American darkness with echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, cousin Raymond Carver, and the young and very talented Brad Watson. At times this book makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road look like hallucinogenic cotton candy. I couldn’t put it down.

Can I say, first of all, that “hallucinogenic cotton candy” is the coolest description ever?

Ray Carver is my literary love, and this book did invoke him. Forrester’s prose may not have been quite as tight as Carver’s, but not necessarily in a bad way. His prose was raw and no holds barred. I’ll readily admit that I have a hard time reading about animal abuse/ animal deaths at the pound, etc. This book kicked me in the stomach a few times in this manner, and hey, that’s the real world. That’s what this book is: the real world, full of ugliness and neglected children and people who give up. A far cry from my dystopian fictions where these things are expected because it’s dystopian, it chills me to think that well, here’s the world in all her ugly and beauty. And it shares the same heart as any dystopian novel because, and I really believe this, we have always entertained some state of half-dystopia, at least in our personal lives.

The book is written in mostly short chapters, often changing perspectives with each one. They read more like extended vignettes, with the hikers being the mostly-solid narrative that all these stories clung to. Most characters had more than one vignette, not giving them an arc but giving them an end. Forrester was not about beginnings in this novel; he pursued ends in all of their hard glory. I’m going to parse through the novel again, looking for the writerly bits, try to find the nuts and bolts. Maybe I’ll tell you more about it, if I discover anything that I can knowledgeably talk about. Or I might choose Forrester’s path and leave it with endings.

Do I like this book? I’m not sure. When I finished it, I dropped it on the coffee table and said f**k really hard. And that, I think, is the point.