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Epic follows a W.Va. version of Forrest Gump

| Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009

M. Glenn Taylor was working on a computer in his basement in suburban Chicago when he saw a news item that left him flabbergasted.

"My face really got hot," he says. "I ran upstairs and got my wife Margaret. I made her come and look at the screen with me. She wasn't much help. She couldn't believe it either."

Taylor's disbelief stemmed from being accorded a rare honor. His novel, "The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart," published by the West Virginia University Press, is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, his name listed along established writers including Roberto Bolano, Marilynne Robinson and Aleksandar Hemon.

Taylor admits he feels lucky to be nominated.

"It's not that I don't think my book is good," says the Huntington, W.Va., native. "I do. But I do feel fortunate."

Taylor's novel is an epic in every sense of the word, spanning more than 100 years in the life of Trenchmouth Taggart. Abandoned by his mother shortly after he was born in 1903, he's adopted by a woman who makes ends meet by making moonshine in southwest West Virginia. He grows up to become an associate of Sid Hatfield, the police chief of Matewan, W.Va., who was gunned down on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in 1921.

On the run from the law, Taggart retreats to the wilderness for more than 20 years. He emerges as a bluesman, Chicky Gold, who performs with Chuck Berry. After another period of exile, he has another emergence, this time as a newsman, A.C. Gilbert, writing for the legendary Jim Comstock at the West Virginia Hillbilly, interviewing John F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign and winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Taylor, 34, who teaches English at Harper College near Chicago, admits that much of the novel is a byproduct of being a West Virginia native.

"I just kind of follow my obsessions, and I have a lot of the same old obsessions that a lot of us do when we research West Virginian history, " he says. "Which, for better or worse, do happen to be moonshine and violence and the strange religious outcroppings. .... But the music stuff, the Chicky Gold and the A.C. Gilbert, I was just following my leads. It's what I was interested in."

Taylor is a bit abashed that he gave Taggart an oral disease that is described as leaving gums "eternally rotten and bloody, teeth decaying and odorous." The character, however, came by his affliction naturally, and Taylor admits that parts of his creation undoubtedly came by way of seeing the movie "Little Big Man" when he was very young.

"I wasn't basing him on somebody I knew in the sense of his physical qualities, or his heroic qualities," Taylor says. "He just kind of evolved from nothing, which is odd."

While the novel has a fantastic quality to it — there's something of a Mountaineer "Forest Gump" in the way Taylor seamlessly slips his character into meetings with Hatfield, Kennedy, Berry and the writer Joseph Mitchell — there are themes embedded in the text. Taggart and his subsequent personas are deeply affected by the changes in the ecology of West Virginia, the strip mining of the state and how the population suffers when industry leaves behind a devastated landscape.

Taylor also wrestles with the literary hurdle of how any work, fiction or nonfiction, loses something once it is committed to the printed page. As Taggart tells Mitchell during an awards presentation in New York " ... every real story loses a little of its truth as soon as you type it. And as soon as somebody reads it, it loses a little more. And then, important folks call it special, give it an award."

"That's not only one of the things I was struggling with in the book, but as a writer," Taylor says. "Even if you're a nonfiction writer, even if you're a journalist, how can you present what you have found in any real way• It automatically becomes artifice. So do you automatically hang up your Underwood, as he says, or do you keep trying to do it as best you can?"

Taylor will attend National Book Critics Circle Awards March 12 in New York. Could something he could not possibly foresee — he didn't even have an agent when he submitted the novel to the WVU Press — happen as it did in his novel• Could a West Virginia native win a major award, literally coming from nowhere?

Taylor doesn't care to speculate on what might happen. He does allow that the nomination has created opportunities and instilled him with a renewed sense of purpose concerning his fiction.

"If you get a little notice, you damn sure better keep it up," he says. "I'll just try and write as real as I can."

WVU Press

Most university presses consist of a handful of dedicated employees who love books. With none of the resources of major publishers, advertising is almost nonexistent, and sales are often a matter of word-of-mouth recommendations.

But every so often, good fortune strikes.

M. Glenn Taylor's novel, "The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart," came "over the transom" to the West Virginia University Press. On March 12 in New York, the Huntington, W.Va., native will find out if his work will win the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

All of the other nominations — Roberto Bolano's "2066," Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project," Marilynne Robinson's "Home" and Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kittredge" — are by major publishers.

For the WVU Press, this is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

"I know it's a cliche, but it is an incredible honor just to be nominated," says Carrie Mullen, director of the WVU Press. "The company we are keeping on this list is impressive."

The WVU Press, headquartered in Morgantown, concentrates on books of interest in the Mountain State, with titles including "Matewan Before the Massacre" and "The Historical Atlas of West Virginia." Taylor's novel was optioned by the press before she started working there, but Mullen says everyone at the press felt it was a book that could appeal to a large audience, given the right circumstances.

"I think that people did realize this was a special novel," Mullen says, noting that the Barnes & Noble chain featured the book for its new writers series. "It's great for a small press to get recognition like this. We're really gratified. We're just five people in a small office and we have to do everything. It means a lot because we all work so hard."

Additional Information:

'The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart'

Author: M. Glenn Taylor

Publisher: WVU Press, $16.50, 276 pages

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