Glenn Taylor’s The Marrowbone Marble Company is a decades-spanning account of the rise of orphaned Loyal Ledford from swing-shift worker at the Mann Glass Factory to inadvertent civil-rights activist and marble manufacturer in 1960s West Virginia, where his progressive views toward race and workers’ rights make him a target for crooked politicos and feuding neighbors alike. And while Ledford isn’t a hell-raiser like the protagonist of Taylor’s National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated debut, The Ballad Of Trenchmouth Taggart, he still has more than his fair share of demons to exorcise.
After Ledford courts his boss’ daughter, Rachel, and returns from serving his country, he chafes at the desk job that supports but doesn’t fulfill him, and sets out to carve something he can call his own into Wayne County with the help of a pair of distant relatives, the Bonecutter twins. As the mythical, grotesque world of his dream-life starts to trickle into the would-be utopia he’s constructed on Marrowbone Cut, he’s forced to decide whether to repay violence in kind, or turn the other cheek.
Taylor is on firm footing when describing the gruesome stint in the Marine Corps that netted Ledford his thuggish best friend, Erm, and a dependence on Ten High whiskey. But when the narrative zooms in to focus on heart-to-hearts around the camp fire, or gentle ribbing from Loyal’s father figure and mentor, Don Staples, the dialogue becomes mannered, with what feels like forced joviality in place of the breeziness and easy back-and-forth that defines old friendships. And when Taylor moves from the particular to the universal, and aims for weighty symbolism—for instance, in the scene where Ledford stews on the pitcher’s mound after a racially charged ball game, then rips the second N from his “Mann” jersey—it’s clear that Taylor has a no-reader-left-behind policy.
Still, the first two thirds of Marrowbone chug along compellingly enough, thanks to gritty, efficient prose and Taylor’s ability to maneuver an outsized cast of characters into and out of frame whenever the story starts to flag. As long-simmering tensions come to a head, Marrowbone incorporates elements of Southern folklore that add disturbing new wrinkles to the narrative, and point to the more potent novel that Taylor is obviously capable of.