As the South gives way to the Sunbelt, southern novelists are having to reckon with a steady erosion of the regional distinctiveness that formerly provided not only the surface but the main subject of their art. The softening of overt racial injustice and violence has been accompanied by increased racial separatism and the consequent loss of the old intimacies—deplorably unequal as they were—between black and white. Meanwhile, over the last thirty years, a vast population of blacks has been driven by the technology of modern agriculture from a rooted if impoverished existence on the land to a rootless and equally impoverished existence in the ghettos of Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Poor whites have moved from their dog-run shacks into rusting trailers, where they now get the old-time religion from television sets, while the first families of Charleston and Savannah have—eagerly or resignedly—surrendered their houses to a thriving tourist industry. The Atlanta airport, rivaled only by those of Chicago and Los Angeles in congestion, confusion, and inconvenience, presents a far more telling image of the contemporary South than the small-town courthouse, now air-conditioned, or the white-columned plantation house, now adjacent to a shopping mall or surrounded by oil rigs.
While some southern novelists—Walker Percy among them—have tried to deal head-on with this transformation, others have sought refuge, so to speak, in a vividly remembered past. It is symptomatic that both novels under review take place in the 1950s, the last decade of which it could be said that the South was substantially still the South. One of them, Paris Trout, is a southern novel written by a nonsoutherner. Although he was born in Michigan and has subsequently lived in—and written about—other parts of the country, Pete Dexter spent part of his boyhood in Georgia and has been able to re-create convincingly the mores of an era when blacks were still referred to (formally) as Negroes and when the notion that they deserved equal justice with whites in a court of law had barely begun to take root in the rural South.
We meet first a severely deprived and possibly retarded fourteen-year-old black girl, Roise Sayers, who, in the opening pages, is bitten on the leg by a rabid fox. We also meet a harsh-mannered white man in his sixties, Paris Trout, who keeps a general store and lends money to the local blacks in the small, central Georgia town of Cotton Point. In an attempt to collect payments that he is owed, Paris Trout, accompanied by an ex-policeman, enters the house where Rosie and her foster family live and, in a fit of lunatic rage, shoots the girl and the woman who tries to protect her. When the town’s leading lawyer, Harry Seagraves, hears of the shooting, he realizes that he will be asked to undertake the defense of Paris Trout. He accepts with some reluctance.
Paris Trout [Seagraves reflects] would refuse to see it, that it was wrong to shoot a girl and a woman. There was a contract he’d made with himself a long time ago that overrode the law, and being the only interested party, he lived by it. He was principled in the truest way. His right and wrong were completely private.
Harry Seagraves had been around the law long enough to hold a certain affection for those who did not respect it, but his affection, as a rule, was in proportion to the distance they kept from his practice.
A man like Paris Trout could rub his right and wrong up against the written law for ten minutes and occupy half a year of Harry Seagraves’s time straightening it out.
The novel moves back and forth between the major characters—poor Rosie, whose story is soon told; Seagraves, whose behavior and attitudes reflect the prevailing ethos of the town’s establishment; Trout’s pathetically abused wife, Hanna, who had once befriended Rosie; and the eager young lawyer, Carl Bonner, whom Hanna hires to help her get a divorce from Trout. It is through their eyes and the eyes of a great many minor characters that we see Trout as he pursues his obsessed and threatening course through the novel.
We watch with revulsion as he sodomizes Hanna with a bottle of mineral water, as he forces unwanted food into her mouth, as he holds her head under water in the bathtub. We follow him through his trial, hear his self-justifications (which never include a moment’s remorse for the murder of Rosie) and his lies. To the surprise of nearly everyone, he is convicted and given a ridiculously short sentence. Then, three years later, after all his appeals have failed, we accompany Trout (still flagrantly carrying a pistol) and the wary sheriff to the state prison farm where he is supposed to begin serving his sentence—only to watch him bribe a local judge to free him on a writ of habeas corpus. By this time he has so intimidated Cotton Point that nothing is done to bring him back to jail—and the novel plunges ahead to an apocalyptic shoot-out involving most of the main characters that the reader will have anticipated many pages beforehand.
Only rarely are we told directly what Trout is thinking. The picture we get from Dexter’s description of him is that of a full-blown paranoid case, a shabby, unkempt, violent man reeking of urine who thinks that his wife is poisoning him, who keeps an arsenal of firearms, and who installs a lead sheet under his mattress to keep from being shot from under the bed while he sleeps. By making his central character an out-and-out psychotic, Pete Dexter has, I think, run afoul of what seems to approach being a literary axiom: that while neurosis may lend itself to fictional treatment, psychosis generally does not. A character wholly given over to mad obsessions and thus entirely cut off from other people tends to arouse in the reader only a clinical curiosity or—if the madman’s deeds are horrific enough—a sensationalist thrill. The descent of a person into madness may be fascinating, moving—even tragic; but madness itself is essentially dull once all possibilities of interesting conflict with others or any sense of conscience have been removed.
The effect of madness upon others can of course be made interesting, and Dexter attempts to do so in the case of Seagraves and Hanna. The experienced, rather jaded lawyer who must defend a repellent client while nursing pity for his victim is a nicely conceived character. Similarly, one can respond with sympathy to the plight of the wife, who married late to escape spinsterhood only to find herself captive of a brute determined to terrorize, humiliate, and possibly murder her. When the lawyer and the abused wife are brought together, Seagraves urges Hanna to keep up the appearance of a normal marriage with Trout in order not to prejudice his coming trial. Hanna refuses, saying that her husband is an “aberration” and that she will not be a party to the shooting of children.
He said, “What if I proved that your husband was defending his life by discharging those shots?”
Her expression turned unfriendly. “You can’t prove what didn’t happen,” she said.
“It’s for a court of law to determine.”
She shook her head. “There is no story you can tell in your court that will change what happened in that house.” She looked around the room. “Or in this one.”
“That is a misperception,” he said, “that an act is, of itself, a crime or a perversion. It becomes such only after it is judged.” He had no idea why he was explaining this to her.
He saw that she had begun to smile again, as if she were judging him. “The misperception,” she said, “is that the law, and lawyers, decide what already happened.”
From this sparring a love affair soon develops between the two in the ominous shadow of Paris Trout, with much closely described activity in bed.
These characters and this relationship are convincing—up to a point. Unfortunately, Pete Dexter never takes his material beyond what is journalistically plausible. His characters stay on the surface, lacking distinctive voices or personalities. Where he is most successful is in evoking a southern community of that period, ranging from the blacks who live in such places as Damp Bottoms and Indian Heights to the substantial folk like Seagraves and his wife who live on Draft Street. There is a wonderfully funny account of the town’s celebration of its sesquicentennial—in which every man in town is required to grow a beard and stocks are put up to punish those still beardless after a certain date.
Mr. Dexter’s prose is lucid and efficient, but without much color or individuality. The story gets swiftly told; it is an interesting story, though not one that I found engrossing or of much moral weight. Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award for 1988, will, I expect, fade rather quickly in the memory of most of its readers.
After Pete comes Charlie, also a prize winner. A novella of his, Crystal River, won the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize a few years ago, while a volume of poems, Red Roads, was picked for the National Poets Series in 1987 and won the Great Lakes New Writers award. Shine Hawk, Charlie Smith’s second novel, carries on its jacket high praise from Pat Conroy, Edward Hoagland, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, and Gerald Stern—good writers all—and a recent reviewer has hailed it for brilliantly resurrecting a dormant strain in American fiction, the rhapsody. The mention of southern rhapsodic writing immediately evokes the lost-and-by-the-wind-grieved ghost of Thomas Wolfe, and the reader, however intoxicated he may have been by Look Homeward, Angel in late adolescence, might well wonder if he is prepared to encounter that particular strain again.
Shine Hawk begins resoundingly, with a sentence that echoes Proust and rivals the syntactical convolutions of Absalom, Absalom!:
For a long time the names and faces of my past had begun to appear to me in fabulously fractured versions, rearing into sleep and onto the blank sheets of canvas I still propped against an easel, into the face of the woman I sported with, and now as I came up the steps of the farmhouse under its scrawl of gingerbread filigree and its tin roof that I could see in starlight Frank still kept painted bright as a silver bullet, onto the porch where Hazel had set out swamp flowers—dazzle fern and sweetspire and bullace—in planters and buckets, where their old red mongrel Spin nosed up out of the shadows to greet me—voiceless, snuffling—I thought I saw Frank in a slouch hat and greatcoat standing among the fallen flowers beside the althea bush at the far end of the porch, grinning at me, holding his arms out to me.
A few pages later, the narrator, Billy Crew, strips himself naked and begins to masturbate as he gazes through the farmhouse window at his close friends Frank and Hazel Jackson, who have begun the preliminaries of love making; Hazel has already spotted the peeping Tom’s presence. Soon the three of them are rolling together on the floor of the porch, and as they do so Billy is assailed by memories of the past—among them his father singing Christmas carols at the top of his lungs. After this start, neither the verbal extravagance nor the rush of events—past or present—ever lets up.
Billy, Frank, and Hazel are not exhuberant kids but life-worn, anguished people in their late thirties. Billy has just come back to his hometown of Skye in southern Georgia from the Gulf Coast, where, since abandoning his wife and his career as a painter, he has been living on a boat. Reunited with his married friends (both his lovers in the past), he decides to go with them to a town in central Georgia to pick up the body of Frank’s brother Jake, who had died in a trailer camp there, and to bring him home for burial. Jake, we learn, was a snarling, embittered alcoholic who wasted his life, and Frank, who loved and hated his brother in equal proportion, is in despair over not having been able to save him. For some time Frank has been living on the edge. “My husband is not going to make it,” says Hazel to Billy, and when the scarcely less troubled Billy asks why, she tells him that there is no explanation.
As with As I Lay Dying, the action of Shine Hawk (the title refers to Shine Hawk Prairie—a swampy savanna south of Skye) centers around an epic journey through fire and water with a corpse that soon begins to rot. The Faulknerian parallel is surely deliberate—and it is reinforced verbally by a sentence that begins, “And the truth is everything and nothing and it is right here before me, under me and around me; it is whatever I make it, it is for example this feline, perpetual river….”—and then runs on, nonstop, for approximately three thousand words of rapturous prose-poetry on the course of the Congress (i.e., Chattahoochee) River from the mountains to the Gulf of Mexico; Smith’s sentence is thus twice as long as Faulkner’s famous sentence in the expanded version of “The Bear”—a sentence cited by Malcolm Cowley as the longest in American fiction.
But there are other echoes too—echoes of Kerouac and his buddies on the road and of Ken Kesey’s merry pranksters in the recollections of Billy’s and Frank’s past exploits, which occupy almost as much space as the equally wild occurrences on the journey back to Skye. The latter include Frank’s setting fire to the trailer where Jake died, his exhibiting Jake’s body to the yokels of Cullen, Georgia (“Watermelon capital of the world”), and Billy’s beating up a counterman in a Cullen restaurant (“He started to push up from his knees, but he didn’t make it. I kicked him in the face. I heard the mealy crump of his nose breaking”). Pursued by the police, the three abandon their truck, place Jake’s coffin in the stern of a stolen boat, and set off down the Congress River, pausing on the bank to make protracted triune love. Here is a passage that marks the climax—or is it the nadir?—of the river journey and illustrates the heights—or depths—to which rhapsodic language can transport us:
…as here in the callow land still fresh from the sea, green yet beneath the darkness, under a great oak not unlike the original council tree under which the first settlers charmed this ground away from Indian kings, only a few milles from the farms on which our people were born, on the incipient margin of the great swamp, The Barricade, where the wind moved in the tall tops of the old cypress trees, and the cries of hawks came to us like the cries of lost angels, my loving friend Franklin Jackson, free of hope and sanity, pulled his brother from the stinking coffin and rolled with him in the sand, kissing his destroyed mouth with kisses deep and fervent, rolled flailing and crying out until, exhausted, he lay sprawled upon the broken body.
We drew him away then, and carried him to the river and washed the putrid grease from his skin….
The reader who finds this overripe may still not be prepared for Shine Hawk‘s Grand Guignol conclusion, which reads like a reductio ad absurdum of the gothic excesses to which the southern literary imagination has occasionally been subject.
“Callow” seems a mild word to describe not only the adolescent cruelty that characterizes many of the Frank-and-Billy episodes but also the Weltschmerz of their frequent musings on life and its (non)meaning:
Then I thought, this is how it goes; this is life on the edge. It was the same old story: no answer out here but confusion, no choice but the best among untenables.
I have learned you cannot survive on this planet if you regret the past. No matter what the past is. And you also have to show up for your own ruin.
No matter what grand creature you might find, it would be taken away—nothing was wonderful enough to endure, and your love could not keep it.
Why Billy, Frank, and—to a lesser degree—Hazel have fallen into such states of romantic despair is never explained. Although there are many references to family horrors in the background, Charlie Smith hardly attempts to ground the feelings of his characters in any psychologically convincing personal history. He prefers to generalize about their anguish, to shower us with images of posturing housewives and embittered, grinning businessmen and farmhouses in which someone screams through the night.
What can be said in favor of Shine Hawk? There are moments of grotesque humor. Some of the local minor characters make a memorable brief appearance and the idiosyncracy of their speech is amusingly and sympathetically recorded. Smith’s botanical, horticultural, and typographical knowledge is impressively marshaled in the cadenced sentences that celebrate the landscape (which, for example, “beneath its covering of gallberry and pine and row crop was sandy, shading in color from near black in the farmed and fertilized topsoil layer through the gray tailings of root-reach to a pure crystalline white, dense and soft as flour”). Whether or not such rhapsodic prose is to one’s taste, many of the physical images are brilliantly precise and evocative. The trouble is that these descriptive set pieces are rolled down like gorgeous backdrops that have little relevance to the often silly drama taking place on the stage.