Book Chat: Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail

Last week I accepted a challenge to read a book I hate. I picked three books at random off the shelf and started with T.J. Forrester’s “Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail“. Well, my first attempt was a failure as I enjoyed the story.

It is not, however, one I would have selected if I hadn’t been on this quest. I was also misled by the review quoted on the cover of the book.

“At times this book makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road look like hallucinogenic cotton candy.” – A.M. Homes

The Road is one of my top five favorite novels of all time and my number one in the post-apocalyptic genre. The Road is a National Bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner and was adapted for film, albeit not very successfully in my opinion. It is gripping and makes you really feel the inner turmoil and pain of the characters as they navigate their new dystopian world and try desperately to reach a destination that offers some glimmer of hope. Imagine The Walking Dead minus zombies.

The only thing these two novels have in common is the fact that the main characters are on a long journey, by foot. That’s it. There are no other similarities and to state that Black Heart is like The Road is a fallacy.

Black Heart has it’s own merits. Forrester’s choice of point of view for this novel is interesting. The chapters that follow the protagonist, Taz Chavis, are written in first person. The alternating chapters are written in third person and follow characters that may or may not ever appear in the book again. Much like a real life thru-hiker on the Appalachian Trail may experience, the reader only sees a glimmer of these characters for one moment in time. Couples that live near the trail and interact with hikers for the brief moments in which they pass through their section. Hikers that speed up or fall behind, or abandon the trail entirely.

Each of these third-person chapters could easily be a stand-alone short story. While I loved these side stories, each inspiring me to daydream about what I would do if I lived near an epic trail such as the AT, the story could have actually moved faster without them. Black Heart is on one hand, a character study, and on the other, a murder mystery. Except the reader knows who the murderer is from the start and while you are left wondering if all the supposed accidents are part of the murder parade or if they may in fact be real fatal accidents, there is no actual mystery to solve.

I would have enjoyed this story more if it had stayed true to a character study. Perhaps a fictional version more akin to Wild: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed or Back to the Wild by Christopher McCandless.

I’m drawn to fiction and non-fiction of self-discovery quests. I wanted Black Heart to be that. It wasn’t. But it was good, and it’s a quick read. And it did make me want to hike a little of the Appalachian Trail. Not all 2,200 miles of it! But perhaps a section that takes a good long weekend.

On to the next of the books to see if I hate that one…

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