An Outsider’s Reckoning in “Twilight in Hazard”

In Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning, author and journalist Alan Maimon gives us a text verging on an encyclopedic overview of the goings-on of eastern Kentucky from the early 2000s to present. It took Maimon a whopping fifteen years to write. In these pages, Maimon weaves political commentary, social analysis, and personal narrative from the time he spent in Appalachia as a field reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal from 2000 to 2005. Just last week, devastating flooding in eastern Kentucky made national headlines. Many news outlets emphasized the destitution and poverty of this corner of Appalachia alongside images of muddy water consuming houses and schools. While it’s true Appalachia has long been plagued by exploitative industrial practices leading to entrenched poverty, drug addiction, and isolation from the rest of the country, news coverage like this plays a consistent role in depicting the region as singularly ailing and hopeless. At the time Maimon took the assignment in Hazard, one of the editors at the Courier-Journal — headquartered in flatter, western Kentucky — told him that they needed someone to cover the mountainous area “like a foreign correspondent would.”

In this book, Maimon pulls from stories he covered for the Courier-Journal demonstrating the complex set of motivations and circumstances dominating the actions of many from the region, people often pigeon-holed as hillbillies. As a native Appalachian, I recognized the qualities of people I know from my own corner of the mountains. The mayor of Hazard, Bill Gorman, welcomes Maimon soon after he takes the post, even making him an honorary “duke” of Hazard, while charging him with a responsibility: “Do us right.”

This book serves not only as Maimon’s reckoning for Appalachia, but also as a reckoning of his own, with the disintegration of news writing in the online era. He criticizes the sensational “clickbait” tactics news entities turned to in the face of dwindling budgets. Indeed, Maimon is thorough in a way that is increasingly uncommon in our face-paced information-hungry world. Encouraging fast, under-research stories in response to online demand ultimately led to the termination of Maimon’s post and other rural posts like it, giving them less visibility on a national level.

For all Maimon calls to account in these three hundred pages, he does so deftly and with lively prose and compelling stories, taking his journalistic skill into a larger format. I found myself propelled from one chapter to the next, retaining even menial statistics and facts because of the engaging context. I have, however, never read a piece on Appalachia that did not have an agenda, and I was wary going into this read. In the introduction, Maimon acknowledges that his coverage of the region could be problematic: “What gives me the right to take a crack at explaining this troubled region?… Eastern Kentuckians like to tell their own stories, and they tend to do so quite effectively.” Yet he goes on.

Maimon states more than once that he does not wish to dwell only on the dire realities of a region stricken by generational poverty because the “more compelling subjects are how this came to be and whether there is a possibility for a brighter future.” He begins where every discussion of modern-day Appalachia must, with coal mining, and follows its ripple effects into poverty, opioid addiction, reliance on disability, as well as what the promise of a post-coal economy could mean for the region. The chapter titled “Life Beyond the Mines” ends, however, with a litany of depressing statistics that tee up the next chapter, “Killing Season,” all about a string of drug-motivated political murders he covered for the paper.

While Maimon’s dedication to honesty is what makes this book outstanding, there are times when I sensed a mild antagonism for individuals and grassroots initiatives that promise hope for the region. At times he seem to patronize initiatives like Boone’s Ridge, a destination nature park set to open in 2023, and SOAR, an organization supporting the expansion of broadband in the region, referring to the “alphabet soup of organizations” which he has seen “come and go during [his] years there,” calling their ideas “intriguing” while acknowledging the increasing need for reliable internet in the region post-pandemic. In the afterward, Maimon says that the hardcover edition of “Twilight in Hazard” received pushback from people “who felt it spoke too little about community-level efforts to bring about change.” While I feel Maimon does discuss these efforts in this edition, I’m not confident he is any more hopeful.

These moments of cynicism aside, other areas of the book substantiate a warranted optimism by highlighting the determination of the people who continue fighting for change in the region. Sheriff Catron, Paul Wellstone, Tony Oppegard, Ned Pillersdorf, and Charles Booker — who is running for senate this November — are just a few individuals Maimon spotlights for their contribution to eastern Kentucky. They demonstrate the unexpected resilience and pure goodness of communities that point the way to a better future. If not outright optimism, Maimon displays a willingness to be surprised — which can, at times, feel like hope.

In the chapter titled “Poison Politics,” Maimon analyzes the shift in Appalachian politics which resulted in the 2016 presidential election, earning the region the title of “Trump country.” In 2008, Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama by a landslide in eastern Kentucky, only to be defeated by Trump in those same counties in 2016. This apparent reversal, he argues, is not inconsistent at all, but motivated by the same longstanding values and a mistrust for government which guided voters to dramatically different conclusions in the two elections. Few have articulated a coherency in Appalachian voting behaviors in this way, and it holds the key to uniting the region behind new candidates. One interviewee suggested that Bernie Sanders might have outperformed Trump in the region in 2016 for this reason. Appalachians have a long history of disrupting the status quo and demanding change.

Though specific to eastern Kentucky, “Twilight in Hazard” reveals new aspects of headline issues including racism, religious zealotry, and Trumpism. When Maimon’s editor at the Courier-Journal told him to approach Appalachia like a foreign correspondent, Maimon seems to have gone in with an open mind, interpreting the region on its own terms. I believe he fought to maintain that openness throughout the years he spent there to much success. His perspective on the opioid epidemic is succinct and consistently human. His candor about his own mistakes as a journalist and his genuine connection to the people he writes about shine through every page of this book.

It could be that this subject is simply too close to home for me to not bristle at the occasional flashes of sensationalism and doom I noted. For each of those flashes, though, there are dozens more of compassion, honesty, and balance on topics others have written about with far less grace. Whether you’re an Appalachian or an outsider, I highly recommend having your own reckoning with this book.

Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning
By Alan Maimon
Melville House
Published June 8, 2021
Paperback July 5, 2022