Chapter 16
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Fish Out of Water

Cathey Daniels explores personal agency in rural Appalachia in her debut novel

Cathey Daniels explores the mountains of North Carolina and the rippled impact of family abuse in her debut novel, Live Caught. Divided into two sections set 10 years apart, the story conveys the feeling of being a fish on a hook: caught.

As the novel opens, the protagonist, Lenny, is 14 years old and running away from home. When out fishing, his father would always discuss how easy it would be to take a boat down the river, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and Lenny has decided to do just that. He’s been subjected to his older brothers’ abusive whims for years, with many a bruise and even a lost arm to show for it. His parents never intervened on his behalf, so Lenny takes the first step toward escape on his own.

Ironically, Lenny’s escape efforts lead to a different kind of capture. A torrential storm lands him under a dock piling, with his middle pinned under the weight of the piling and his head barely above water. His feet sticking out from under the dock are the only visible sign of his predicament. It’s here that a local priest, Father Damien, uncovers him. Bruised and penniless, Lenny has no choice but to follow Damien back to the local town, called the Block, and the church where Damien lives and preaches. Lenny quickly learns that Damien provides money and food to his faithful congregation, many of whom are so poor they would starve without the help. Damien’s means of obtaining the money he uses, however, is questionable — illegal, even.

Daniels paints three-dimensional characters with layered motives and compromising loyalties. Lenny is a rather reticent main character, yet the reader is allowed entry to his thoughts, which adds a depth and humor inaccessible through strict dialogue. When Father Damien introduces Lenny to the Block and the church, stating, “You gonna find out all about it,” Lenny thinks, “To hell I am.”

Nope. The idea is to put as much distance from back home as possible. Which means replenishing stores, stealing somebody’s boat, heading back down Lake Norman and directly through the Wateree Dam. He hadn’t made his way down the French Broad River, paddled for miles against the current of the Swannanoa, stayed afloat next to the goddamn speed hogs of Lake James, then, evidently, survived a 100-year storm on Lake Norman, all for nothing.

Lenny spends the entire first section of the book scheming his escape — from his rescuer Father Damien, from the crooked cop who shows up asking Lenny questions about a missing boat, and from Raymond, a young man who takes a shine to Lenny and creates a drug-stealing-and-reselling partnership with him. In contrast, the second section of the novel finds Lenny returning to his home 10 years later, finally willing to confront his bullies and demons now that he is 24 rather than an impressionable 14.

The stakes are high, and Daniels spares no gory details on the reality of conflict. A blazing fire, a horse chase and subsequent gun fight, and several falls off horses and barn roofs — one fatal — will leave readers tense in their seats. Daniels, who grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, does not romanticize country living. Father Damien’s character embodies the harshness of living off the land for all of one’s life. Lenny’s brothers, Frank and Jude, are foils for the honorable (and dishonorable) job of earning a living in a town with very few prospects. Lenny’s father, once so chatty when Lenny was younger, is later virtually mute and confined to a wheelchair, perhaps repressed by the decade of bearing witness to Jude’s cruelties.

Live Caught is a story of the search for freedom and personal agency. It’s a novel about facing one’s demons, even if those demons are family or loved ones. It’s also a story of regret, of what happens when action is never taken, or when it is taken too late. Most notably, however, it is a story of learning to live with the consequences of those choices.

Fish Out of Water

Abby N. Lewis is a part-time desk assistant for the North Knoxville Library and an adjunct English instructor at ETSU. She is the author of the poetry collection Reticent and the chapbook This Fluid Journey.