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Tony Gentry

Short-listed for the 2019
Faulkner Society First Novel Award

It’s Game Day at the University of Virginia, launching a new school year, when Charlottesville fills to bursting with incoming students, football fans and alumni. Famed neurosurgeon Rainsworth Cannon and his equestrienne wife, their goth teenaged daughter and her train-hopping boyfriend, a cop and his wayward brother, all have been living for this day. But they cannot imagine how at its end their lives will be changed and forever entwined by what goes down at the Coal Tower.

When you can, try to buy from independent bookstores.


"Gentry’s richly observed debut novel traces the intersection of two separate worlds in Charlottesville, Va., on a late summer day. Matt Mosby is the local police officer. His mentally ill brother Sid lives with Matt but spends his days in a homeless encampmentor in the attic of a huge abandoned coal tower. Chloe Cannon, 16, has partied with friends at the tower, while her mother Iris and father, the bombastic neurosurgeon Rainsworth, are preoccupied with plans for an upcoming film festival. Chloe’s obsession is Lucas, a starry-eyed teenaged musician who makes his way to her, after a fling the previous spring, by hopping coal trains from his home in South Carolina. Tension vibrates along each of these threads until everyone is caught up in a tragedy at the coal tower. Dynamic prose shows Gentry swinging for the fences. The sprint through the minds and actions of this intriguing mix of people will grab hold of readers’ attention until the startling, unsettling conclusion. Gentry succeeds with a memorable portrait of a college town and its disparate worlds." – Publisher's Weekly


"Like some mutant love child of Cormac McCarthy and John Kennedy Toole, The Coal Tower casts a poignant, provocative, and at times hilarious light on the fractured American landscape of today. Tony Gentry’s remarkable debut signals the arrival of an incandescent new voice." – Paul Witcover, author of Lincolnstein and The Emperor of All Things 

"The Coal Tower has it all: colorful characters, rapid pacing, dark humor, and an unexpectedly moving story. The author has a fond eye for the eccentricities of people, imbuing his debut novel with a basic love for humanity that makes reading it a joy." – Katy Munger, award-winning mystery novelist

"Piling layer upon layer of life lived on game day Charlottesville-style, Tony Gentry in his debut novel brilliantly weaves multiple plot lines bent toward an uncertain and unexpected catastrophe. Displaying equal parts gusto for language and love of his singular characters, The Coal Tower brings to mind two masterpieces of the last century, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth.

– Randy Fertel, author of Winging It and A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation


Every town has a place like this. In Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s the coal tower. A squat, concrete bunker roughly the shape of an enormous thermos bottle, it stands shaggy with kudzu on six ponderous concrete legs next to the train tracks that run east and west through downtown. A few coal and gas trains still run along these tracks, rumbling between mines up in the mountains and power plants dotted around the Virginia Piedmont, but now that all the revamped warehouses have gone electric or solar, the tower serves no purpose.  Its steel-reinforced walls are too sturdy to dynamite, and so far no developer has imagined a way to turn it into condos. At one point, years ago, a sculptor built a 20-foot tall dress frame atop the tower, then draped a giant’s white cotton dress on it, naming the work in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings. He meant it to be a thought-provoking, lovely memorial and provocation, and it did serve -- if nothing else -- as a middle finger aimed at Monticello, the Founding Father’s hilltop home. 

The artist was surprised, however, to learn that the dress would not stay on. He’d get a call at his studio in Staunton and drive over the mountain to find the yards of fabric that made up the sculpture’s dress stretched across the honeysuckle thickets, torn and dirty, as if blown off by the wind. He’d unstitch it into washable sections, have it laundered and resewn, then spend a whole day with ladders, tools and a couple university students precariously fitting the dress back onto the frame. Two days later, he’d get the call again. This happened three times.  After that, he bought a thermos of coffee and parked his pickup behind some scrap lumber by the tracks and waited. Woke up with a start to find the dress gone again, but this time it was nowhere to be found. He looked everywhere it could have blown, then noticed something, a crack in the coal chute door. The door was carved into the face of the tower ten feet off the ground, but he was able to straddle a rail siding in his pickup and hoist himself up from the cabtop. To his surprise, the door was not sealed at all, just blocked by a flap of plywood that he easily pushed aside. You couldn’t see much in there, but his flashlight revealed that someone had found a use for the coal tower after all. A rusty ladder bolted onto the interior wall stretched down to a circular room littered with squatter’s treasure:  blankets, pans, an old mattress and piles of other debris. Crumpled in one corner, like a deflated hot air balloon, lay the torn and coal-streaked dress.

The artist climbed down inside the tower and retrieved the dress. He then notified the police and personally sealed the coal chute door with an old oaken tabletop that he bolted into the concrete. But he gave up on the dress, leaving the skeletal frame atop the tower, having convinced himself that the sculpture was more interesting that way. But really, it would have been such a hassle to dismantle it, and nobody cared anyway. When he left, as far as anybody knew, the kudzu took over. The sturdy monstrosity squatted ugly and forgotten along the tracks.

Except not really. It had taken all of five minutes to pop the door bolts with a crowbar.  The squatter’s camp was back in business in a week. A seasonal refuge, largely abandoned in the summer and winter, but cozy during the rains of spring and fall, it serves a transient population that the proud, go-getter town does not even imagine. And in the summer, when the squatters are gone, local kids make it their own private club, the last place to go on the first pub crawl of their lives, a townie’s holdout from the University’s all-grasping frat boys and sorority sisters, who can overrun a pizza stand in a second. There it sits at the foot of downtown, a lump of gray concrete topped by a rusting skeleton, an eyesore, and beacon to the lost and yearning.

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