Rating: 4 Stars
I have a weakness for a genre that goes by many names, one of which is Hillbilly Gothic, of whom Donald Roy Pollock, IMHO, is the undisputed master, specifically the short story collection Knockemstiff. They are an intense, high octane, finger in the light switch set of stories.
Every now and then, I poke around and see if I can find a new author that writes in a similar vein. The closest that I’ve come to thus far is Frank Bill, specifically Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook.
This collection showed such promise, but alas, it lacked the sheer energy of the other two authors. Most of the stories were well written and entertaining, but they just seemed to lack a spark.
There were ten stories in this collection. Probably not coincidentally, the two best stories bookended the other stories.
The first story, Grit, is the story of a mineral factory in Alabama down on its luck. The manager (Glen) is heavily in debt to his bookie (Roy), who also happens to be an employee at the factory. Glen calls Roy into his office to lay him off. Roy makes a counteroffer to Glen to allow him to grind up some minerals and sell them on the black market. Glen doesn’t want to, but he’s so deep into Roy that he feels that he can’t turn him down.
The proverbial inch becomes the mile. Inexorably, Roy takes over the plant to the point where Glen is essentially working for him and the employees of the plant are all working off gambling debts.
This is a story of small time evil. Anywhere else Roy would probably be eaten alive but here in this remote, rural setting, Roy becomes a criminal kingpin. As in most such stories, the kingpin is due for a fall, and it occurs here as well, at which point the criminal enterprise picks up again as if nothing is lost. The message here is probably some combination of evil can worm into any situation, no matter how remote, and once the gears of evil have started turning, they become nearly impossible to shut down.
The last story, the eponymous Poachers, concerns three brothers. Their mother has died and their father subsequently committed suicide. They have learned to live completely on their own in the woods as poachers. They are close to non-verbal and about as feral as humans can get.
The setting again is in very rural Alabama. The surrounding community has come to accept the brothers and their illegal activities.
One night as they are going about doing their illegal poaching, they come across a brand new game warden. The game warden, since he is so new, is not willing to look the other way and tries to arrest them. In the ensuing fight, the game warden is murdered.
The brothers immediately go into hiding. The victim was the protege of a legendary game warden named Frank David. Frank David is the boogeyman to poachers across the state. They tell each increasingly taller tales regarding his abilities. He can track anything. He is relentless. He is invisible.
David, hearing of his protege’s death, announces that he will be the new game warden in the area and it will be his mission to bring the brothers to justice. Thus begins a cat and mouse game to see if David can catch the brothers. Does his reality live up to his legend?
This is a taut, suspenseful tale. Whose side are you on? The nearly invisible game warden representing law or order or the feral brothers that have no concept of social morality?
The remaining stories are grim little vignettes into living in the deep rural South. Several stories feature suicide as a theme. There are a couple of stories where rural violence has left characters so scarred that they’ve become actual or budding serial murderers.
At the root of nearly all of the stories is corruption. It can be the blatant corruption of the lawbreaking of Grit and Poachers, or the spiritual corruption of giving up, or the moral corruption of deciding that you have no place in society and consciously choose to live outside of it.
You read nothing of the legendary gentility of the South. These are people living in deep isolated poverty. For most of the characters, you get the sense that their life is circumscribed by something like a twenty mile radius. Their life seemingly has not changed in any fundamental way (or if has, in a negative way) for possibly one hundred years. The past decades of what we on the coast think of social and economic progress has left characters like these behind.
Perhaps that’s why stories like this pull at me. I live in a cosmopolitan, coastal city surrounded by thousands of people and I can pretty much get anything that I want within an easy walk. I work for a large company that sends me on business trips across the country. Last year, I vacationed in Oregon, the East Coast, and England.
These stories are of America, but of an America that I have absolutely no concept of. It’s hard to believe that I share the same nationality as the characters in these stories.
Clearly, the politics of the last year has brought all of this to the forefront. I have no idea of how to bridge this divide, and who knows, maybe the gap is unbridgeable.