Kevin Canty | The Underworld revisits mining disaster

Missoula writer's latest is "brutal and delicate, hilarious and totally heartbreaking"

Books & Writers
Kevin Canty's The Underworld
Kevin Canty’s The Underworld: “brutal and delicate”

Kevin Canty, in his gritty, incandescent novel inspired by the Sunshine Mine fire of 1972 that killed 91 miners, imagines three lives, shattered by the disaster.

David, the brother and son of miners, is a student in Missoula and immersed in university life, full of “sex and drugs and new ideas.” His younger brother, Ray, plunges into the mine every day with stubborn acceptance. He’s married to wild Jordan, who was “pretty enough and blond and she had a mouth on her that could keep up with Ray, which was something.”

Ann, a good Catholic, feels trapped in her childless marriage and the narrow confines of their small Idaho town. And Lyle, a hard-rock miner all his life, is “about half used up.” He has $280,000 in the bank, but when he tried to retire “all he did was sit around and drink … He’ll work till he can’t anymore, he thinks.”

But life, as each of them knows it, comes crashing down with news that the mine is on fire and up to 150 men are trapped inside. “Rumors flicker through the crowd like an electrical current: the lift operator died, carbon monoxide, miners tripping over bodies in the dark, a donkey off the rails, they’re all alive, they’re all dead.”

David’s brother and Ann’s husband both die, and Lyle is trapped in a tunnel at the deepest level, sustained by a pocket of air, a rivulet of water.

“This is the opening of hell, David thinks, nothing but fear, no one to comfort him, and nothing to offer the women in the way of consolation.”

Canty inflects his novel with uncanny realism, and imbues his valiant, flawed characters with compelling honesty. We’re pulled into the bowels of the tragedy, and hang on, as each fights to survive it.

“Brutal and delicate, hilarious and totally heartbreaking. Like Charon, Canty makes a great ferryman into uncharted territory,” writes Dan Chaon.

Canty, who teaches at the University of Montana, is the author of four novels and three short story collections.

– Kristi Niemeyer