cover image The Ancient Hours

The Ancient Hours

Michael Bible. Melville House, $15.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-61219-864-4

The small town of Harmony, N.C., serves as a microcosm for America in Bible’s vivid if disappointingly slim latest (after Empire of Light). Harmony, a town “older than America,” is the site of a tragic event in 2000: teenager Iggy entered the First Baptist Church during a service and set the place on fire, killing 25 worshippers inside. In quick scenes marked by staccato writing and shifting perspectives, Bible creates portraits of the townspeople affected by the crime, among them a teacher who rescued a four-year-old boy from the blaze and was fired for praying at school in defiance of a Supreme Court order, the girlfriend who reminded Iggy of “the circus girl from La Strada,” and members of a Christian cult who believe the devil floats in a person’s bloodstream. The passages are well-written, but they fail to resonate in the overstuffed narrative. This is especially true in the second half, which features thinly developed stories about a mysterious woman who arrives at the town library, and the rescued four-year-old boy’s experiences as an adult. Still, Bible does a good job adding texture to the town’s characters, such as a minister with an extensive gun collection. At its best, the novel highlights in bracing clarity one town’s reckoning with a monstrous act. (Dec.)