Paperback, 978-1-981-08909-3, 141 pages, $8.99
Bennett Donovan’s first book, Devil’s Sinkhole, is an intelligent, entertaining short novel with two key settings, Austin’s famed hipster-slacker scene and, 170 miles to the southwest, the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area near Rocksprings, Texas. Without giving away how Devil’s Sinkhole unfolds or ends, there are pointed debates over what is real and what isn’t. There is a death under suspicious circumstances, plus some drugs, a gun and a sheriff’s investigation that could bring big trouble. And love tries to bloom.
The book’s two main characters, Conor Kemp and Emma Vega, are young creatives attempting to find their artistic voices, as well as sort out their beliefs and bearings within the fragile cocoon of contemporary “Austin cool.” Conor, Donovan writes, is a struggling poet who sometimes felt certain “that life was the cruelest of practical jokes, and, in these moments, he wished he could exist outside of consciousness, like moss hanging from a limestone ledge, drenched by rain and dried by sunlight.” He “subsisted on menial jobs,” such as handing out koozies at music festivals, “that evoked deep parental sighs.” He also lived in housing with a limited future. “Gentrification was eating into the neighborhood like the termites devouring his baseboards. Nevertheless, in three years Conor’s rent had never gone up, and for that he offered a monthly prayer for the preservation of Mrs. Flora B. Simone of Lafayette, Louisiana, the last remaining landlady indifferent to rising rents in Austin.” Emma, meanwhile, “didn’t believe she had an eternal soul. In fact, she had serious doubts about whether reality existed outside her own head at all, but she perceived beauty, and she hunted it across Central Texas in a cobalt blue Corolla marked with hail dents and bumper stickers.”
Despite being a new novelist, Donovan shows skill at also creating quirky secondary characters, such as Dallas McCormick and TK, the “Tarantula Kid.” McCormick possessed “an impeccable hipster resume,” Donovan writes. “In the last year he had learned Brazilian jiu-jitsu, brewed a variety of pale ales, and grown a handlebar moustache. But his true calling was hosting parties in his backyard, which he had meticulously transformed into a quintessential Texas biergarten.” Meanwhile: “Everybody in Rocksprings knew Cody Knippa as the ‘Tarantula Kid,’ or ‘TK’ for short. He haunted the trails outside of town scouring the scrub brush for Aphonopelma hentzi. He captured them by sliding an oversized clipboard underneath and then quickly clamping down with an aluminum pie pan….”
Rugged Texas landscapes gain an added glow in this debut novel. “The Hill Country rolls like an ocean,” Donovan describes. “Waves of limestone break one after another in a spray of white rubble. From the top of each crest the rocky whitecaps extend for miles, the horizon beckoning, the low shrubs little more than foam on the surface….” The dialogue is sharp, deep, and sometimes darkly funny. And Conor’s and Emma’s actions and choices reflect their hard struggles to harness creativity and move forward with their lives.
Bennett Donovan knows that zigzag path. He has been a paralegal, a history professor, a software developer, and a consultant. He can now add “novelist” to the top of his list.