An Idaho mining town faces a disaster and its aftermath in Kevin Canty’s masterly, affecting new novel.

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Inspired by the devastating fire that took the lives of 91 men in Idaho’s Sunshine Mine 45 years ago this spring, Kevin Canty’s masterly, affecting eighth title, “The Underworld” (W.W. Norton & Co., 256 pp., $24.95), is less about an abysmal hell than the purgatory of survival in a spiritually and literally toxic small town.

Adjacent to the richest silver mine in the country, Silverton, Idaho, is a company town cursed by good fortune. More than just a means of making a living, the mine has become a way of life for the men who labor along its veins, exerting a gravitational pull that keeps them coming back even as it uses them up. Nobody in town can quite get clean of the place, and its fatalistic denizens stumble out of the darkness into the oblivion of whiskey and good old vitamin R, Rainier Beer. Drunken brawling and sex are common sins; the town prostitutes turn a lively trade, as do the priests.

In his third year of college, David seems poised to escape his hometown. Yet he feels divided, not quite at ease amid the relative urbanity of Missoula and yet newly estranged from the roughneck camaraderie of the miners, including his father and brother. Visiting his hometown in his VW bug, itself a hippy provocation in the land of pickup trucks, he feels caught between his past and future selves, a nowhere man. Ann also longs after something more than a barren future with her miner husband. She hesitates before the exit for I-90 West to Seattle, haunted by this road not taken.

Author appearance

Kevin Canty

The author of “The Underworld” will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, at Elliott Bay Book Co. (elliottbaybook.com or 206-624-6600).

Lyle had retired from the mine, only to return in the grip of some fatalistic loyalty. He salves his aches with cheap brandy and dimly reckons to work until he dies. Then one May morning a mile and a half underground, Lyle and his partner Terry notice a peculiar burning smell. Neither is worried much: This was a hard rock mine after all, and rock doesn’t burn. Then the machinery goes silent, and the lights flicker out.

As the fire smolders on filling the mine with toxic smoke, the sheer magnitude of the devastation dawns. Body after body is recovered from the depths only to be lowered back into the ground, “like a bad joke.” Lacking hearses, bodies are borne to the cemetery in pickups. The smell of creosote and freshly turned earth mix with lilacs as the stunned town sleepwalks into spring. Meanwhile, Lyle and Terry cling to life far below in a remote air pocket, “at the back door of death.”

As vivid as his descriptions of the Silver Valley are, Canty’s real genius lies in his subtly drawn depiction of the emotional and psychological landscape of this “big incomprehensible thing.” Profoundly displaced, the stunned survivors struggle through a wasteland of individual and collective grief, guilt, longing, recrimination and a shameful feeling of opportunity. As the haunted Ann realizes, “She wished to be freed of her own life. And now she is.”

The ways forward from this valley of death diverge, some rising toward the light and others down into darkness. In spare, moving prose, Canty brilliantly captures the tragic contradictions of this dark spring, and of lives stubbornly laid down for profit in tainted earth that daily reclaims its own.