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After reading three assigned stories for my upcoming January Master of Fine Arts seminar on “grit lit,” I was glad I had read Dorothy Allison’s “River of Names” during the afternoon sitting up rather than in bed just before going to sleep.
This powerful and frightening view of dysfunctional family life is set somewhere in the South in perhaps the fifties or sixties. In just a few pages, Allison drags you through a snarling gaggle of relatives that include all kinds of perverts, rapists, druggies, suicides, and young mothers with too many babies. The theme of entrapment amidst a culture that does not value other lives and forgets the dead as quickly as they do the names of cousins. Rage and violence seem to be the two main tickets for many of the males to get attention and recognition. Most of the women are marginalized and left to struggle to survive. At best, they end up brutalized and victimized. There is no love or comfort to be found for anyone, just the hope of escape, improbable as that may be.
The narrator tells the story of her legion of woebegone relatives as almost “entertainment” for her lesbian lover who comes from a more gentrified culture that is alien to the poverty-stricken lives we meet in this whirlwind journey. The narrator has chosen not to be a mother, since she doesn’t want to be part of the ongoing cycle of bringing numerous doomed children into a bleak world with little promise of survival. She is also embarrassed about her life and tells us how she cannot actually confess the shame, self-loathing and fear she lives with. She wishes she were able to really confide in her lover and tell her that the stories are actually true and not just tall tales, so extreme in their depictions that they defy belief. When her lover says, “You tell the funniest stories,” she answers “Yeah, but I lie.”
In a somewhat related vein that might stretch credulity, I read today about Carl Ruggles, considered to be among one of the most influential early 20th century ultra-modern composers. In a 1924 review of the premier performance of his “Men and Mountains,” a music critic of The New York Times said the music “leaps upon the listener with a yell. There is a wild shriek of the brass choir, and thereafter no rest for the wicked. It is as if the irate composer had seized a plump, disparaging critic by some soft and flabby part of his anatomy, and pinched him blue, crying the while, ‘You will hear me and you’ll not go to sleep, either!’”
Perhaps this review parallels my feelings after reading Allison’s tale. One thing for sure, I certainly wasn’t going to sleep easily after reading it.
On her web page, Allison asks for us to understand her: “What I am here for is to tell you stories you may not want to hear. What I am here for is to rescue my dead. And to scare hell out of you now and then. I was raised Baptist, I know how to do that.” Yes, she sure does.
Where I live in eastern West Virginia, there are many men similar in predicament to Jeremy in David Joy’s “Burning Off Into Forever.”
These are men caught in their thirties or forties who have little future to look forward to. They are part of a culture that disdains education with the possible exception of knowing how to keep old cars running and spending long periods of time reloading spent rifle and shotgun shells. Employment is marginal and available jobs that don’t require many qualifications are often over an hour’s drive away. These are men who were married young and now have no exit from loveless marriages where life is played out on a Hobbesian scale of brutal, nasty and short. There is barely enough money for basic necessities inside an old trailer that lists and has poor plumbing. The woman in this story is almost anonymous and is simply portrayed as a nag who offers little support or comfort. Jeremy, of course, finds his solace in a bottle and drinks so much he almost falls out of his tree stand while hunting with a cheap rifle and an inadequate scope.
What I found most interesting is the inner dialog Jeremy has throughout the story with himself. He seems to be a decent man who actually loves his wife, but thinks “things that happen young have a way of stacking up against you.” He knows he’s responsible for his actions and makes a point of never blaming anyone but himself. But the inevitable rub slowly gets to him that the stack is loaded against him. “But the more life went on, the more he came to think that some seemed to owe more than what they had to give. He wasn’t looking to come out ahead. He just wanted to break even.”
What I found incongruous was that Jeremy seemed to be an introspective man, a self-reflective man who articulated his sense of despair and entrapment. I have met and grown to know more than a few men where I live who are similar in predicament but not in disposition and self-awareness. Unlike Jeremy, they seldom speak in full sentences, certainly not paragraphs. They seem on the whole to be happiest when they’re hunting or fishing, watching car races, or getting drunk. Conversation is minimal and limited to basic greetings.
Be that as it may, I was riveted by Joy’s vivid account of how Jeremy thought he had a wild boar in his sights rather than a man foraging for ginseng. Once the trigger is pulled and we read about the fear that overcomes Jeremy as he watches the man die, we are left with a harsh, bracing turn of plot. This simple hunting trip that just moments earlier had Jeremy thinking of his father and his young son and how he wished he could be a better provider has now taken off in a new direction into the night, a dark change of plan that cannot be undone.
I had read some earlier Larry Brown short stories which frequently left me looking over my shoulder. “Samaritans” is especially good at capturing us off guard so I readily enjoyed the misdirection the story takes from the very beginning. Here Frank is in a cool bar nursing a cold beer feeling sorry for himself because his wife has left him to go live with someone else. Before we know it, a young child, only known as the “kid,” appears and tries to buy “a pack of cigrets.” When the bartender refuses to sell him any, he turns his eye on Frank and panhandles him for one dollar.
Here’s another one of those moments that hover in the air waiting to take us somewhere new and somewhere scary. The drama that subsequently plays out between Frank and the kid’s mother again shows us the painful and bluntly conveyed picture of the rural poor, trapped this time inside an old car that is not road worthy and full of an assortment of dirty, malnourished and barely clothed children and the mother’s own mother. Except for the kid’s panhandling, all the dialog is between Frank and the woman, who is never named. The callousness of the woman, who is most adept at slapping her children around and manipulating Frank into buying her beer, is reflected in the dark, brutal life she has led. She is perfectly willing to leave her mother and the feral children behind in the car directly out in the blazing sun and unbearable heat so she can get into the bar as quickly as possible to drain some cold beer in one long gulp. She’s also quite direct in asking Frank if he wants to pay for some sex. She’s desperate to the bone, though, and knows the husband who abandoned her won’t be where they are trying to go to meet him. It doesn’t take much for her to turn belligerent quickly when the bartender demands that Frank get her out of the lounge.
Brown’s prose is direct and simple and props Frank up in a quick moving Elmore Leonard-type dialog. Frank, the bewildered bystander who has been waylaid by this woman, just reaches for his wallet to give her some money which she quickly counts without a word of thanks and then escorts her aging mother out of the car into the lounge. Poor old Frank tells himself he has done a good deed and remembers but has never responded to TV ads begging for money to help starving children overseas. He seems so forlorn that he even tells himself, “I know Jesus wants you to help feed the poor.” Earlier, he had felt remorse for running over a dog by accident—just in the wrong place at the wrong time, similar to his current predicament.
He’s a modern day contorted version of the biblical “Good Samaritan” who comes to the aid of an unfortunate in the parable of Christ as told in “The Gospel According To St Luke.” In this case, though, Frank’s assistance comes almost by accident and today’s victim is interested only in the money and not at all in the gesture. Frank showed mercy, but it was not all that much out of wanting to do a good deed. It was more a near desperate act to distance himself from the woman who has latched on to him and has shown no gratitude for what he had done. The story leads you to see that Frank felt more compassion for the dog he had run over earlier, an innocent victim, than for the woman, a desperate and manipulative exploiter who has nothing in her future beyond the meaningless moment and the unquenchable desire for a cold beer.
And in a perfectly ironic ending, the kid has the last say as he leans out the car window and mutters, “Boy you a dumb sombitch.” The story ends with the simple statement: “Frank agreed.”
I can’t read too many of these kinds of stories back to back without a permanent case of the shivers. And I don’t want to read any before bedtime.
- Editor's note: If you are interested in Grit Lit, please take a look at Patrick Ledford's story on the Dew, "Grit Lit: An Introduction." Images: The feature image of the person in muddy boots in a pick up is from Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader by Brian Carpenter; Dorothy Allison, David Joy and Larry Brown’s (from A Writer’s Life by Jean W. Cash) photos are promotional.