Leaving the Land
No one now needs to be told that great changes have occurred in the economic geography of the United States, that rural life has been transformed by technology, that the old Northeast and Middle West have lost wealth, power, and population while the Sunbelt and the Far West have acquired them—along with an assortment of new miseries. Recently these shifts have been subtly dramatized in the work of writers as disparate as Walker Percy, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Raymond Carver. The strong new fiction being written in the hinterlands suggests that novelists of urban experience and sensibility can no longer assume, as they have in recent decades, that theirs is the dominant voice in our literature.
The three books under review were written by the newest of what could be called the New Regionalists. All, as it happens, are “first” works: a first collection of short stories and two first novels. Their settings are psychologically as well as geographically remote from the concerns of cities, and the prime activity in two of them is farming, in Michigan and South Dakota.
The somewhat gawky title of Janet Kauffman’s collection of short stories announces its feminist leanings (to say bias would be misleading), leanings that emphatically extend to life on the farm. The men have mostly gone off to find paying jobs or have simply gone off, leaving the women to do the heavy as well as the light work on the home place. In the funny and exhilarating story called “Patriotic,” the narrator, whose husband works in construction, relies upon a seventeen-year-old boy and a stout neighboring woman, Mrs. Bagnoli, to help her with hay baling. After swerving onto the farm in a pickup truck and narrowly missing the Ford 4000 tractor she is going to drive, Mrs. Bagnoli extends a hearty greeting to the narrator and the boy:
“It is criminal,” she says, in a festive voice, “farmers away from farms.” She shakes my hand. “Criminal, husbands working! If we go”—she shakes my wrists—“babies will have to drive.” She reaches a hand toward Floyd.
Floyd bends at the waist and brings his ankles together, politely. They shake hands.
I don’t mind acknowledging Mrs. Bagnoli’s energy. Her hair, which is thick and gray, a horsy sort of hair, is looped into a fountain effect on the top of her head. Small bobby pins catch the light and send out snappy flashes. She wears black tapered slacks and a black nylon blouse, over a body that is short-legged, thick-thighed, and enormously breasted.
The story is a celebration of hard work, good nature, and high spirits. It is also, amusingly, about breasts. The boy, Floyd, is shirtless from the start; his “two dark tits” are “flat as stickers.” The narrator’s breasts under her V-neck shirt are “smallish pegs, with nubbed blueberry nipples”; she informs us that she does not wear a bra to work on hay baling—“it would fill with leaves.” As the day heats up, both women remove their shirts. Mrs. Bagnoli, who wears a black bra “big as the top of a swimsuit,” tosses her nylon blouse onto the muffler pipe of the tractor. It soon catches fire, threatening the little crew with a gasoline-tank explosion that could blind and deafen them and “stop time just where it is.” But Mrs. Bagnoli knows enough to keep driving, and the blouse burns harmlessly to ash. “No need to tell her a thing,’ Floyd says.” Later, when the two women are drinking gin-and-tonics around the kitchen table and Floyd, having called his girlfriend, has driven away, Mrs. Bagnoli says, “Wouldn’t you say…that he is encouraged by what he has seen of womanhood?” To which the narrator replies, “I hope so…. Time will tell.”
Female solidarity, together with newly perceived female opportunities, figure in a number of the stories, but on the whole the treatment of the other sex is friendly, if a bit condescending. Janet Kauffman’s women are extremely susceptible to men, no matter how unreliable (or indeed dangerous) they may be. In “The Alvordton Spa and Sweat Shop” a hair stylist named Marabelle lives in a windowless basement (the rest of the house having been left unfinished by her absconded lover-builder, Red) where she offers refuge to various women, including the narrator, who need a few days or weeks of recuperation from whatever is weighing upon them. But at the end, Marabelle is planning a trip to Houston, where the faithless Red now lives.
In her successful stories, which also include “Harmony” and the delightful hen-and-rat tale called “Who Has Lived from a Child with Chickens,” Janet Kauffman achieves her effects with light, deft touches, and a minimum of explanation. She writes elliptically, sometimes quirkily. Though often funny, she is also capable of evoking, with a poet’s precision of detail, the bleakness of winter-bound farms and half-deserted towns:
Alvordton in drifted snow, at dusk, is not quite picturesque, even to eyes accustomed to Marabelle’s cellar. The dogs that stretch on their chains by garages have already dirtied a full circle, and too many windows—through which one sees tiny families, bent at the dinner tables—are sheeted with plastic pulled across the glass and tacked to the frames. Some of the plastic has frayed; but worse than the fraying is the plastic that holds, taut—it weakens the look of the windows; it coats the faces inside with a viscous film.
The remaining pieces in this small collection seem to me slight or teasingly cute or—like the title story—too programmatic in their feminism. But their presence does not seriously get in the way of the stories that really work.
There are few light touches in Douglas Unger’s account of the devastation that has overtaken a once-functioning (if not exactly flourishing) farming community in the plains of western South Dakota, where the coarse soil is known as “gumbo.” Even in the best of times the farming life is depicted as hard, unremitting labor, the farmers themselves as rough-tongued and often brutal, their lives confined or warped, their pleasures few and crude. Unger’s story centers upon a restless and discontented farm girl, Marge Hogan, who, after the death of her two brothers in the Second World War, helps her tough old father, Ben Hogan, run a large farm eighteen miles outside the town of Nowell. Deciding that she will never have a romance, she is on the point of marrying a callow yokel when, after a drunken evening in Nowell’s muncipal bar and poolroom, she wakes up in the hotel bedroom of a flashy new arrival in town, Jim Vogel. Vogel is a lawyer who works for Nowell-Safebuy, a large “agribusiness” that is gaining control of the land by setting prices, manipulating loans, buying out some farmers and forcing others to concentrate upon the mass production of turkeys. Despite old Ben Hogan’s disapproval, Marge marries the heavy drinking, much older Jim. They have a son, build a fancy house, fight, drink, and eventually get a divorce.
The second half of the novel is narrated by the son, Kurt, who gives a pitying account of his mother’s isolation, her boozing, her succession of uncouth lovers. Meanwhile, Nowell-Safebuy, having bought up most of the land, begins losing money and pulls out, closing down its plant and leaving Nowell to become a ghost town. Even Marge’s fine house is no longer salable. The old Hogan farm is now a ruin, but Marge clings to it stubbornly, determined to pass it on to her son, who doesn’t want it.
Leaving the Land is thick with facts. Yes, we agree after several pages of expertly marshaled detail on the discouraging, often revolting, vicissitudes of turkey rearing, that must be the way it is. Though he avoids their lyrical, quasi-religious or rhapsodic prose in his descriptions of rural life, Unger nevertheless shares with Hardy and Lawrence an urgency to show how things are done, and, again like them, he pits his human characters against the force of external processes that can at any moment overwhelm them. In Unger’s world, these are likely to be man-made rather than natural—and more consequential than any drought or flood. Here is his account of the sudden arrival of the Nowell-Safebuy plant machinery in the unsuspecting town:
There was a loud noise coming from somewhere. Horns were honking from over the rise of the highway that skirted town just past the Cooney house, big diesel truck horns. Everyone at the Dairy Freeze heard it…. Her eyes found the roll of prairie over which the blacktop disappeared and from which the sound of horns and clattering steel rose to a deafening pitch.
The lead bulldozer, pulled along on its trailer, a gleaming yellow in the afternoon sun, rolled up over the hill. Then one by one, a convoy slowly appeared—three bulldozers, several trucks larger than she had ever seen and loaded with bulk under gray canvas, a long road grader, three tank trucks marked with flammable-liquid warnings, two trailer houses as wide as both lanes of the road, then several smaller trucks loaded with tools and materials of construction followed by a tractor trailer pulling the two halves of a high steel tower decked with red flags. And in the middle of it all, looking as if he couldn’t possibly belong there, thick brown scarves of dust rising up around and nearly covering him, a man in a black convertible wove in and out of that line of machinery….
The man in the convertible is Jim Vogel—this is Marge’s first sight of him.
Leaving the Land is built upon a series of powerfully wrought scenes, naturalistically conceived and executed, that add up to an impressive whole. But Unger strikes me as considerably less successful in his handling of character and dialogue. Marge Hogan’s plight, her discontents and yearnings, are conscientiously registered, but the alchemy that might have converted her into an interesting figure does not occur. Her grim old parents are essentially rural stereotypes, again carefully rendered, while Jim Vogel remains an unstable compound of warring impulses, an unsatisfactory enigma to the reader as well as to his wife and son. Their speech, in its dogged realism, seems flat and predictable. It will be interesting to see whether Unger will be able, in his subsequent work, to endow his characters with an intensity comparable to that which distinguishes other aspects of his writing.
Ostensibly, Padgett Powell is far more personal in his preoccupations than Unger, much less involved in describing the external events that are reshaping the land. And yet, behind the precocious chatter of Edisto‘s twelve-year-old narrator, comparable transformations take place. The novel’s setting is a still-unspoiled strip of coastal island between Charleston and Savannah, a palmetto thicket that was once scheduled for development by a land speculator and then abandoned. A “mod,” octagonal beach house, built as a model home by the speculator, stands near the ocean; nearby is an aboriginal shack, which the developer never got around to moving or destroying. Not many miles away is the model of the fate that Edisto Island has so far narrowly escaped: the lush green lawns, redwood condominiums, pruned oak trees, and crowded marinas of Hilton Head, perhaps the most blatant symbol of the metamorphosis of the Old South into the Sunbelt.
The inhabitants of the beach house (facetiously called the Savannah Cabana) are a divorced, semi-alcoholic college professor and her young son, who bears the name of Simons (pronounced “Simmons”) Manigault—old Huguenot names that could be the Charleston equivalent of Lowell Saltonstall for a Bostonian or Harrison Carter Byrd for a Virginian. The shack is the home of Athena (“Theenie”), an aged Negro woman (Powell avoids the term “black”) who has helped rear Sim and now does the vacuuming and laundry for his mother. Sim’s father (referred to as the Progenitor) is an up-and-coming lawyer who disapproves of his ex-wife’s lovers and of her unconventional way of bringing up Sim. The mother, who is called the Doctor by her son and the Duchess by the local blacks, worships writers and is determined that Sim shall become one. To this end, she has been surrounding him with books since he was in his bassinet. To encourage him to gather “material,” she sends him to the local public school instead of the smart private school the Progenitor would prefer and allows the boy to hang out at a local black nightclub called the Baby Grand; he is accepted there by the tough, razor-wielding blacks partly for his own sake and partly because of their humorous appreciation of the Duchess and her odd ways. Sim’s mother also insists that he do a regular stint of writing; this novel is the purported result of the regimen she has set.
The events of the story are not only complicated but also, because of the breezy eccentricities of Sim’s style, hard at times to fathom. Here is his account of the accident (falling out of a school bus) with which Edisto more or less begins:
That’s what being a “material” hound will get you: little you who should be up in the front with the nice kids but are in the back listening to Gullah and watching, say, an eight-year-old smoke marijuana like a man in a cell block, eyes squinting toward the driver with each hissing intake of what his grandfather called hemp and took for granted, you trying to orate on the menace of the invading Arabs—“They don’t ride camels and carry scimitars, but they are coming all the same; they’ve bought ten islands, we’ll all be camel tenders soon”—when the emergency door flies open and it is not the Negroes nearest who go out and do cartwheels after the bus, it is you who gets sucked out into a fancy bit of tumbling on the macadam, spidering and rolling up the gentle massive cradling roots of an oak tree that has probably stopped many more cars with much less compassion.
(Sim’s oration on the Arab menace alludes to the fact—as the reader may not at first guess—that Kuwait has been a major investor in the creation of the South Carolina coastal resorts.) As we become accustomed to the voice, we learn that a young process-server arrives at the Savannah Cabana in search of Theenie’s wild daughter and that old Theenie, convinced that he is her grandson by a white heroin-addict, flees into the palmettos, vacating her shack; that the Doctor persuades the young man to stick around to help out with Sim; that he does so, moving into Theenie’s shack, and becomes a boon companion and father-surrogate for the boy. His influence upon Sim is benign: he teaches him to take things as they come, calms his anxieties about the changes puberty will bring, takes him to a screening of the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight in Charleston, and sets him up for his first date. We never learn the young man’s name—Sim dubs him Taurus—or whether he is indeed Theenie’s grandson. Like Sim, Taurus, who looks white, knows how to handle himself both with the dudes drinking beer at the Baby Grand and with the old Negro ladies fishing for mullet at the pier.
Edisto is distinctly a tour de force. The voice of Sim is very much an author’s concoction, almost too clever for its own good in the way it combines a precocious vocabulary with schoolboy slang, adult insight with prepubescent naiveté. Despite echoes of J.D. Salinger, which may well put off some readers, I found myself increasingly charmed by the book’s wit and impressed by its originality. Some turn of phrase, some flash of humor, some freshly observed detail, some accurately rendered perception of a child’s pain or a child’s amazement transfigures nearly every page. Powell’s ear is acute: one of the pleasures of the book is his ability to catch the nuances of Southern speech, whether it is the malicious conversation of the Doctor’s academic colleagues at a cocktail party or the genial banter of country Negroes at the fishing pier.
Right in the middle of this happy talk…, she picks up an Old Milwaukee beer by her hip and tilts it up on her face and gags.
“This beer kissy hot!” She looks for Wheat [the old man with a three-wheeled bicycle who provides beer and other supplies for the fishers], who’s still doddering. “Kissy hot! Buckwheat!”
Wheat’s almost remounted and he makes the several pedals necessary to pull up behind Lilly.
“You so slow, no wonder your wife left you,” she shouts at the river.
“She din’ leave me,” Wheat says. “She died.”
“The ultimate leff,” Lilly says, and they howled, all the ladies. Even Wheat giggled.
“Well, where is it?” Lilly says.
“The cold beer!”
“Hold your horse.” Wheat digs into the bicycle basket. Past fried chicken in a shoebox with wax paper, and some stray mullet all mixed in with the chicken,…through fishing tackle too,…empty beer cans, finally he pulls out a sixpack of Old Milwaukee. Paper is stuck to it because it’s sweating.
“Goddamn, Buckwheat!” Lilly yells.
“Goddamn whah!” Wheat yells back.
“It’s gone be kissy hot, too. Where’s the ice?”
“You forgot the ice!”
“No, I din’. I must overlooked it.”
There is pathos too. When, well on in the novel, Sim realizes what the Progenitor and the Doctor’s gossipy colleagues have already guessed—that Taurus, his pal, is also his mother’s latest lover—Powell enables us to feel the force of the boy’s shocked and troubled response. And at the end we share Sim’s nicely delineated ambivalence—a mixture of regret, excited curiosity, and bravado—when he moves with the remarried Doctor and Progenitor to Arab-financed Hilton Head (where “All the Negroes are in green landscape clothes, or white service jackets, or Volvos with their kids in tennis togs”) and begins a new life involving golf lessons, tennis lessons, and enrollment at the fancy Cooper Boyd school. The triumph of the Sunbelt seems nearly complete.