Book of the Week: The Midnight Cool – Lydia Peelle

Peele is the author of the much-admired story collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. Her debut novel, The Midnight Cool, takes place in rural Tennessee in the early years of WWI before America’s entry into that war. It follows the fortunes of two itinerant horse traders who discover a way to make their fortune trading mules for the European war effort.

What begins as a kind of picaresque road story opens up into a tale of romance, family secrets, and a conflicted country on the brink of war. The war fever and isolationism of America 100 years ago at times seems unnervingly current. But Peele’s beautiful eye and ear for period detail and rural life that immerses you in an older America on the brink of becoming a citizen of the world. And her portrayal of animals is a revelation. The mules and the spectacular race horse of the title are fully realized characters you won’t soon forget.

While lighter in tone and distinctly American, The Midnight Cool in some ways reminded me of Atonement. Peele’s poignant handling of the human—and animal—costs of war won’t soon be forgotten.

Though the book arrives in stores next week, it was already reviewed in the NYT on New Year’s Day and will be reviewed in the NYTBR at the end of the month. The Nashville-based blog Bacon on the Bookshelf has an interview with Peele this week.

“America’s entry into World War I and Charles’s relationship with Catherine impel the young man to make a fateful decision that will have consequences for all concerned. Reading like a cross between Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses” and Fitzgerald’s “The Last of the Belles,” this novel is filled with nearly melodramatic situations that are rescued by the intelligence of the writing and the acuity of the characterizations, on the way to its bittersweet denouement.”
— Publishers Weekly

 Fully imagined…affecting…Billy’s longer and fuller life makes him the more vibrant of the two characters, but the mysteries of Charles’s fate propel the book…The Midnight Cool is undergirded by the considerable agility and charm of Peelle’s voice, and by her deeply attuned love of nature.”
   — New York Times

A richly textured first novel…The skillfully crafted characters are rendered with acute psychological insight into the moral dilemmas that shape one’s humanity and sense of right and wrong. The propulsive narrative, fueled by poetic prose, is made more powerful by the heart-wrenching, quietly heroic lives eked out in the margins of history. For fans of Mary Gaitskill and Ron Rash.”
   — Booklist

“I’ve been waiting for this novel ever since reading Lydia Peelle’s searingly beautiful story collection, Reasons for an Advantages of Breathing, in 2009. It was well worth the wait. The journey of middle-aged swindler Billy and his young, idealistic partner Charles is a journey into the history and heart of the oft-maligned American dream. As the nation considers whether it will join World War I, Billy and Charles must weigh the merits of freedom against patriotic obligation, their life on the road against the temptation of putting down roots, and their diverging desires against the love and loyalty they bear for each other. A life is made up of such decisions, and we only get one such life. As Billy says, ‘I reckon that’s the beauty and the shame of it, all at once.” Peelle’s exploration of this beauty and shame is exquisitely wrought, richly populated, and ultimately devastating: I finished the novel in tears.’
Mairead Small Staid, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

The Midnight Cool (9780062475466) by Lydia Peelle. $26.99 hardcover. 1/10/17 on sale.

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