BOOK NOTES: ‘The Pie Man’, Set in Southern WV, Picked Up by Henry Holt and Just Published as ‘Redemption Mountain’

redemption mountain
BY DAVID M. KINCHEN

Gerry FitzGerald believes in miracles. I don’t know this for sure, but when his publish-on-demand 2009 novel “The Pie Man” was picked up by major publisher Henry Holt and Company and published on June 25 under the new title “Redemption Mountain” (448 pages, $28.00) it has all the elements of a miracle in today’s fluid world of publishing. Publishers are consolidating, merging and — I imagine — shaking with fear as Amazon.com is now publishing books — instead of just selling them.

I reviewed “The Pie Man” in 2009 (see below) and I just received my review copy of “Redemption Mountain.” I’ll review it when I finish it, but Gerry FitzGerald assures me that it’s essentially the same novel, “edited, tightened, and shortened” as he told me in an email. I want news of “Redemption Mountain” to get out as quickly as possible, so I’m doing this review as a “Book Notes.”

Here’s my review of “The Pie Man”, posted Nov. 3, 2009 on http://www.huntingtonnews.net:

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Pie Man’ Captures the Essentials of Contemporary Rural West Virginia with Well-Drawn, Unforgettable Characters

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntingtonnews.net Book Critic

Gerry FitzGerald, a native of Massachusetts who owns an advertising agency in Springfield, MA, has written “The Pie Man” (BookLocker.com, 536 pages, $23.95) one of the best books about West Virginia and the culture of the coal counties that I’ve ever read. It’s a tour de force debut novel that captures the spirit of the Mountain State’s southern coal counties.

Charlie Burden, Natty Oakes, Pullman (Hank) Hankinson, Eve Brewster, Emma Lowe, Buck Oakes, and of course Boyd (The Pie man) Oakes — these are all people who come to life with FitzGerald’s portrayal of them and other residents of the fictional town of Red Bone in the very real McDowell County, WV.

Outsiders typically either demonize or beatify people in their novels. FitzGerald avoids this trap, creating well defined characters with very human flaws, much as novelist Martin Cruz Smith did in his 1981 novel “Gorky Park,” set in the Soviet Union. Smith had never visited the Soviet Union before he wrote “Gorky Park”; FitzGerald has visited McDowell County, but admitted in a telephone interview that he was basically a short-term visitor to the area. “I never spent any prolonged time in West Virginia,” he said. “My knowledge comes through reading a great many different things. In addition to the books mentioned in the acknowledgments, one of my greatest sources of information was the Welch Daily News, which I subscribed to for about three years back when I was formulating and then beginning the story.”

Natty Oakes is in her late twenties and is the mother of two children, 12-year-old Boyd, The Pie Man, who was born with Down Syndrome, and his younger sister Cat. She’s married to Buck Oakes, an abusive man who takes out his failures in life on those around him, including his wife. Even Buck’s sister, Eve Brewster, who runs a convenience store in Red Bone, hates the way he treats Natty and ignores his two children.

Into this insular world of people who know all the secrets of the town comes Lexus-driving Charlie Burden, partner of a New York City engineering firm that has designed and is supervising the construction of a gigantic state-of-the art clean coal-burning electricity generating plant in McDowell County. He’s taking over the job of “Big Mule” — a coal mining term for the top boss — after his grossly obese predecessor dies of a heart attack in a strip club.

Charlie, in his very late 40s, is married to the lovely Ellen, a year or so older, who’s involved in the activities of their country club in Westchester County, the county north of New York City where Bill and Hillary Clinton have a home. Their son is a successful stockbroker in Boston, while their daughter is attending Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, which happens to be where FitzGerald earned his graduate degree. Their world couldn’t be more different than Red Bone, WV, but Charlie Burden, possessed of all the toys of a wealthy man, is at a “Is That All There Is?” stage of his life.

Charlie wants his firm, Dietrich Delahunt & Mackey, to send him to China to supervise a gigantic construction project. He’s tired of being a computer user and paper shuffler at the firm and wants to get his hands and feet dirty in the field. Instead he’s sent to West Virginia on what he considers to be a routine assignment.

After a night or two in a company owned condo in Bluefield, he decides to live closer to the job site and rents an apartment in a building owned by Eve Brewster in Red Bone. That’s where he meets Natty, a runner like him, coach of The Bones, an under-14 soccer team and the mother of The Pie Man. His next door neighbor is Pullman (Hank) Hankinson, a retired teacher and the man who plays cribbage with him and who educates Charlie in the ways of how corporate America has treated West Virginia like a Third World colony by Big Coal, Big Railroads and Big Industry in general for more than 100 years.

Burden becomes The Pie Man’s best friend, who calls him “Chowly.” He runs with Natty and is charmed by her to the point where he admits to himself — and soon to Natty — that he’s falling in love. Yes, there are elements of a Romance novel in “The Pie Man,” with the ruggedly handsome hero and the attractive heroine. This is also a novel of the sturm und drang of big business, as various elements opposed to Burden and his mentor, senior partner Lucien Mackey, try to take over the firm. It’s also a novel of political corruption and powerful Charleston law firms run by faux good ole boys who know how to make things happen — like obtaining a permit for a mountaintop removal coal mine to feed the maw of the new electrical plant and buying farms of people in the way of “progress.”

With a minimal budget, Natty has coached her soccer team into a powerhouse in the county, thanks to skillful players like Emma Lowe, a 13-year-old black girl playing on a team composed of boys. Emma’s reputation has attracted the notice of scouts from the University of North Carolina, which has produced some of the best women soccer players in the nation. Natty is the closest character in the book to saintliness, serving as a home health aide to retired miners and running a children’s library in a run-down building near the soccer field.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, other than to say it involves scenes of violence, conflict, humor and self-realization. The depiction of the bus trip to New York will have you laughing and crying at the same time. Buck and Charlie take to the woods to challenge two veteran French-Canadian lumberjacks in a male-bonding scene of great power. “The Pie Man” is a first-rate depiction of a state that has suffered at the hands of outsiders, including writers and moviemakers — John Sayles of “Matewan” fame excluded. In fact, John Sayles might be the perfect filmmaker to bring “The Pie Man” to the big screen. Or maybe Daniel Boyd, who cast my late, great friend and former colleague at The Register-Herald, Neale Clark, in his films “Paradise Park” and “Invasion of the Space Preachers.” (Clark was also in “Matewan,” playing Isaac, one of the mountain men who came to the aid of the miners dispossed by Baldwin-Felts.) Neale would have made an outstanding Hank Hankinson.

Gerry FitzGerald spent almost 10 years writing a book that anyone familiar with West Virginia will appreciate and enjoy. It’s available on Amazon.com and I urge everybody to buy it. And, while you’re at it, buy an extra box of Kleenex: You’ll need it!

About the Author: Gerry FitzGerald has owned his own advertising agency for the last 25 years in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is a Viet Nam veteran and a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism/ Northwestern University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He lives in East Longmeadow, MA with his wife Robin and children Thomas and Joanna.
Here are excerpts of some of the reviews of “The Pie Man” as submitted by FitzGerald:

The reviews below were for the first version of Redemption Mountain, a print-on-demand publication entitled The Pie Man, which came out in 2009. Reviews were taken from Amazon and other on-line sources.

I am an active book club member and end up reading books that truthfully aren’t very good. The Pie Man by Gerry Fitzgerald is the real deal! It is rich with characters who you really care about, and a plot that keeps you totally involved. It was a large book, but so well written that I read it in no time. Part of the ending was shocking, but had a real WOW factor. I didn’t want the story to end! As I was reading the book it actually played like a movie in my mind. I agree with other reviewers that it would make a great film. Bravo to the author for his remarkable debut novel. Maryanne Goulart, Westport, MA

The Pie Man is an outstanding literary first effort. The author illustrates a mastery of several diverse subjects, interweaving them into a very readable, intriguing tale of love, heartache, and the triumph of ethics over the exploitive appetites of corporate greed. Remarkably rich character development allows the reader to deeply experience a range of attachments and emotions – from the eminently lovable, to the thoroughly despicable. The author effectively employs humor, and has a wonderful command of language, allowing scenes to vividly come to life, and leaving the reader no choice but to rejoice at the unlikely good fortune of the underdog. Invariably, chapters end in a manner that vaguely but cleverly hint at what’s to come, preventing the reader from inserting the bookmark and getting to bed! The novel teases the reader into predicting the outcome, then amending that prediction; but the story eventually concludes in a fashion that defies prediction. Oh yes, and if you don’t absolutely fall in love with the Pie Man himself, you’re likely incapable of falling in love! Kevin McCullough, Wrentham, MA

I just finished The Pie Man and feel lost without these characters in my life. I love a book like this that stays with me long after the read is over. The story line kept me wondering and hoping for different outcomes and the author doesn’t disappoint by being predictable. I was involved with each of the characters and was left wishing for more. What a fascinating culture and industry I learned about all the while being so entertained, I couldn’t put it down. Gail Mathes, Port St. Lucie, FL

This book was sent to me by a friend. I usually like to select my own reads but I thought I’d honor the gift. This is one of the best books I have read in years and I read quite a bit. You won’t be sorry for buying this book. The characters become your friends and when you finish the book you don’t want your friends to leave. A real winner. Frank Towers, Roxbury, NY

One of the best stories I have read this year! I didn’t want the story to end…at least not the way it did…even though I knew that it would. Each chapter kept me coming back for more, even the ending. I felt each person’s feelings as the story progressed. I fell in love with Pie Man and felt such sorrow for Charlie and Natty and what the outcome of their relationship would produce. When I bought the book I thought that it would bore me with technical terms about the coal mining industry, not so, the writer kept my interest in both the mining and especially in each of the character’s lives and how the strip mining effected them. A wonderful read, I hope it’s enjoyed by many readers young and old. Y. Taylor, Holyoke, MA

“The Pie Man,” written by Gerry FitzGerald, tells a beautiful story of love, soccer and, like most books of the area, coal. His descriptions are well worded and thought out, and he paints a fantastic picture in the reader’s mind. “The Pie Man” has a lot of soul, and encompasses the spirit of rural West Virginia.”Reviewed By The Daily Athenaeum, Morgantown, WV

“Gerry FitzGerald, a native of Massachusetts who owns an advertising agency in Springfield, MA, has written “The Pie Man” (BookLocker.com, 536 pages, $23.95) one of the best books about West Virginia and the culture of the coal counties that I’ve ever read. It’s a tour de force debut novel that captures the spirit of the Mountain State’s southern coal counties.” Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntingtonnews.net, West Virginia, Book Critic

And here’s the miracle part, told in an email to me by FitzGerald:

“……Redemption Mountain is the edited, tightened and shortened version of “The Pie Man”, and I’m sure you will still enjoy it. “The Pie Man” was “discovered” in 2011 by a bookstore owner who recommended it to her St. Martin’s Press rep, who took it to New York where it was read and loved by Sally Richardson, the founder and President of St. Martin’s. Then, I got a big time agent, who moved it to Henry Holt & Company.”

* * *

Gerry FitzGerald believes in miracles and I do, too. Look for my standalone review of “Redemption Mountain” in July.

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