Jonathan Corcoran’s debut novel, “The Rope Swing,” is his ode to growing up in small town West Virginia.
In short, Elkins native Corcoran’s book is a 158-page love letter to a state that, to him, is not always easy to love.
“West Virginia for me is a place I love, but a place that causes me a bit of anxiety at times,” he said from his 400-square foot apartment in Brooklyn recently.
It’s from that apartment and studying under another West Virginia writer, Jayne Anne Phillips, where most of his short stories were penned. Phillips, who served as Corcoran’s adviser while he pursued a graduate degree in fiction writing at Rutgers University, wrote that “The Rope Swing” takes readers “inside quiet revolutions of the soul...”
In 10 short stories, Corcoran explores topics ranging from an economically dying town to his burgeoning sexuality. Most of the stories deal with either lost or confused souls struggling against local customs and norms.
Many of the stories, Corcoran said, reflect what his life would have been like if he had stayed in West Virginia instead of leaving to attend Brown University and then moving to New York.
“They’re what would become of me,” said Corcoran, who is openly gay. “They are what my life would be like if I stayed.”
Most of the stories are emotionally raw as one explores the ending of a relationship and another the stillness of Brooklyn in the early morning hours. Another explores the decision to have an abortion.
But one theme the characters have in common is solitude, be it self-inflicted or not. The majority of stories tell of friends, but with well-chosen words creating paragraphs, Corcoran explores the loneliness nearly every character experiences.
While loneliness is a common theme, Corcoran said he actually hopes the reader finds the book is more about hope. The final story in the book, “A Touch,” inspires hope. One character is a “cancer of the spirit” — possessing a jaded attitude toward life. But through helping someone, his spirit is restored.
The final paragraph reads in part, “She reaches for my hand, and I give it to her. She squeezes my hand in return, and I know that for the first time in a long time, I’m not alone.”
The story is intense, progressive and odd. “I hope it leaves the reader with just a little bit of hope,” Corcoran said of “A Touch.”
Most readers, despite age or sexuality, should be able to relate to the first story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” a story of change, and of the final departure of the town’s train. Perhaps employing a bit of Freudian symbolism, it’s a story of a small town forced to confront life without the railroad.
Corcoran said the story could be that of any West Virginia town. “We told our children that we were God’s chosen people — Appalachian Israelites — even if we didn’t go to church very often. We thought we were given a secret, living out here. We thought that the code to unlocking that secret was fossilized in a piece of falling rock. Living here was both a gift and a test and one day the secret to life would fall from a mountain face and land in front of our shoes...”
Shortly, Corcoran will start a national book tour, giving public readings and signing copies of “A Rope Swing.”
He is slated for stops in Los Angles, Portland, San Francisco, New York and other large cities, as well as more cozy venues in West Virginia, including Huntington, Morgantown, Buckhannon and Elkins. And with stops in his home state, come a bit of angst.
“The most frightening of the readings is the one in Elkins,” he said.
When asked why, he responded, “I am a gay man from West Virginia. The West Virginia I grew up in was a scary place.”
Corcoran explained he grew up attending a Nazarene church, listening to fire and brimstone sermons.
However, he said, things are improving for gay men and women in The Mountain State. Look no further than the author’s parents, a construction worker and house cleaner, who were initially very distant when their son came out of the closet.
“A decade later we’re making nice with each other,” the 30-something said.
But with the publication of his book, he hopes people gain a better understanding of gay Appalachia and of the men and women who inhabit the region.
“It’s hard to hate someone face-to-face,” he said.