Robert Gipe takes a break from sipping his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon to greet friends and colleagues who stop by his booth at Al's Bar to wish him well as the featured reader for the Holler Poets Series.
Gipe, 51, chats with fellow writers, former students and alums of Higher Ground, the original theater series Gipe helped to found at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, many of whom drove all the way from Harlan to hear him read from his debut novel, Trampoline.
The book centers on 15-year-old Dawn Jewell, who lives in Eastern Kentucky with her mother and Mamaw at the foot of a mountain slated for strip mining. Her father's death sent her mother on a spiral into addiction, she constantly fights with her brother, and her divorced grandparents are either heroes or troublemakers, depending which side of the coal war you fall on.
"I was never going to get out from under this place," Dawn reflects as the first person narrator who is a self-described "freak with black fingernail polish."
"Dawn and her speaking style, her vocabulary and richness of expression, are every bit as real, natural, and authentic as Holden Caulfield's. She is an utterly original character in modern fiction," says Gurney Norman, former Kentucky Poet Laureate, author of Ancient Creek, Divine Right's Trip, and Kinfolks, and professor of English at UK.
"This most original novel will require original critical language, a fresh set of literary terms as fresh as the book itself," says Norman.
Uniquely weaving more than 200 comic-book-style illustrations, Trampoline is a coming-of-age tale that has received praise for not only its genre-bending blend of prose and artwork, but for authentically capturing the cultural and economic forces facing contemporary Appalachia in the radically authentic voice of its natives.
A review by the Knoxville News Sentinel hailed Gipe's debut as "a new American masterpiece" and lauded the book's publisher, Ohio University Press, for being the first university press to introduce a major American voice since John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces was published by LSU Press in 1980.
Best-selling Appalachian author Silas House calls the book "one of the most important novels to come out of Appalachia in a long while."
When Gipe takes to the stage at Holler, it's easy to see — or rather, hear — the ring of authenticity in his storytelling. Gipe's voice is colored by his upbringing in Kingsport, Tenn., and filtered through the last two and a half decades spent in Eastern Kentucky.
The audience laughs at many of Gipe's inventive phrasings and Dawn's antics — like her humorous role in an illegal booze scheme — but there are moments of pathos or quiet, too, that crystalize Dawn's uncomfortable place in a complex culture struggling with conflict and identity as much as any teenager.
Gipe credits more than his heritage to his ability to capture the voice of a region, but his decades of work deeply immersed in Appalachian issues, first coming to Whitesburg as marketing and educational services director for Appalshop in 1989 and later directing the Appalachian studies program at Southeast Community and Technical College in Harlan, a position he has held since 1997.
"I came up in the documentary tradition of Appalshop," says Gipe, "which is always about the oral tradition first."
Gipe's experience at Appalshop helped to inform the efforts behind Higher Ground, a community-based theater series tackling regional issues that welcomes anyone from the community to participate in acting, writing, music, and behind-the-scenes technical production.
Like Appalshop films of Gipe's day, Higher Ground's source material is always the stories of the region's people told in their own voices. Students and volunteers go out into the community to collect oral histories.
"I've probably listened to hundreds of hours of oral histories," Gipes says of the almost 400 first-person stories that have been collected so far.
Gipe says the oral histories did more than further refine his ear for regional language; they provided insights into the subject's inner lives, which helped with the formation of Dawn's first-person narration.
"I became fascinated by what people tell and what they don't tell and how they protect themselves," says Gipe. "It's as much about how you talk as how you write."
Gipe, a former zinemaker from his college days at Wake Forest, says the book's drawings helped him to underscore the oral component of his process.
"I wanted to play along the line dividing oral and written language, and the drawings helped me do that," Gipe said in an interview with Appalachian Heritage.
Critics have lauded Gipe's debut within the wider context of American literature, but Gipe says that he wrote the book to appeal to Appalachian audiences particularly, a difficult task he learned all about during several rewrites for Higher Ground installments.
"We had people say that certain scenes just wouldn't work for a local audience," Gipe says of the series' earlier collaborations with playwrights. The series now relies entirely on local writers.
Gipe says the rewrites marked the beginning of his exploration of his own creative voice and that "hearing an audience react" to something he had written inspired him to do more.
Gipe's academic focus on English as an undergrad at Wake Forest and later at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was more focused on literary research and criticism than creative writing.
It wasn't until a post-Higher Ground Gipe attended the Appalachian Writers' Workshop in Hindman in 2006, when Gipe was 43, that he began to think of himself as a writer.
In a radical move to see if he had what it takes to be a novelist, Gipe checked into a motel in Asheville and spent an entire weekend writing as much as he could.
"I figured if I can fill three moleskins, I'll do this," says Gipe, who is now working on the second of three books set in contemporary Appalachia.