Character Complexity in Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

by Matthew McEver

Before the rise of the post-Vietnam Western, the fictional Western was considered light entertainment, with coloring book characterizations–black hats and white hats. Ron Hansen, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (1983), tells the story of how Jesse James was assassinated by a member of his own gang. In writing the novel, Hansen had to contend with over a century of folklore, where Jesse James is revered as an antihero, a Confederate sympathizer continuing the Civil War, and Bob Ford is a spineless traitor. Hansen, though, pushes back against the folklore and challenges the oversimplifications by rendering emotionally complex characters.

The core of Assassination is how Robert Ford idolizes the mythic outlaw Jesse James, yet kills him. Hansen’s Bob Ford is a self-described nobody who believes that he is destined to be a legendary gunslinger. Bob becomes James’ protege, but eventually realizes that if he were the man who killed Jesse James, then “America will know who Bob Ford is” (153).

What further complicates matters is the complexity of Jesse James, a villainous yet complicated soul. Jesse is a one-man show, and his robberies often involve understated hijinks. Following the Blue Cut train robbery, Jesse leaves the engineer a dollar “so you can drink to the health of Jesse James tomorrow” (27). After robbing an Iron Mountain Railroad train, Jesse hands the conductor an envelope containing “an exact account” of the robbery so that the newspapers may report the incident accurately (48).

Repeatedly, Hansen offsets Jesse James’ violent nature against his more redemptive qualities. In one chapter, Jesse dresses as Santa Claus for children. In another, he shoots a man in the head. In another, he’s a Methodist choir director.

Not to oversimplify, the emotional power of the novel is grounded in, namely, two methods. One, Hansen’s telling is colored by another narrative, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus, which lends an emotional component to the text and renders Jesse James as messianic. Second, Hansen creates a moral dilemma for the reader. Hansen recreates an experience for us somewhat analogous to that of Jesse James’ contemporaries. Like them, we are simultaneously taken in and appalled by this false-messiah. Like them, we are enamored with psychopaths.

Where your own writing is concerned, here’s a helpful anecdote and appropriate conclusion. When researching and writing the novel, Ron Hansen determined that “no hard facts, however inconvenient” would be dismissed and “no crucial scenes, however wished for,” would be turned to ends more pleasing to the modern reader (Afterward to Assassination 11). Characters don’t march in line and do our bidding. No matter what we wish for them, they must be who they are. They must, as ugly as this may be, tell the truth not only about themselves, but also about us.

Hansen, Ron. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. New York: Harper, 1983. 

Black as the Devil’s Dreams: Thoughts on Place in Pete Dexter’s Deadwood

by Matthew McEver

Attributed to Chief Seattle is this quote: “(The white man) is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on… he treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”

Writers like to talk about sense of place, but we’re often guilty of using place only to decorate the page, to point to our mastery of the language, rather than using place to bear witness to greater truths about human beings. We take from the land what we need, and we move on. Thankfully, there are writers who have used place in order to say something about human behavior.  

The sense of place in Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood is an excellent example. Deadwood is representative of the literature of the American West, but it is a subversive Western–a Western that refuses to champion rugged individualism and progress, as many Westerns have done. Deadwood, South Dakota was an illegal settlement in Lakota territory, and the strong sense of place in Deadwood reminds us that people destroy one another over land. Characters in the novel are hyperbolically violent and wicked because ownership of land has historically been tied to human violence and wickedness.

Dexter refuses to exalt Manifest Destiny. Instead, he caricatures westward expansion by blending comedy and horror, seamlessly. The novel’s characters are so morally deteriorated that nothing phases them. They engage in droll, flippant commentary in response to gun violence and, in one instance, rape. The role of dark humor in Deadwood is to undermine the “heroism” and intrepidness of those who displaced the Lakota by amplifying their depravity, suggesting that the legacy of American frontier expansion is actually that of amoral opportunism.

The novel opens with a parody of the journey westward, the archetypical passage to Eden, as a caravan heads for Deadwood. Historically, the Black Hills Gold Rush instigated the settlement and development of Deadwood, but here and throughout the novel, Dexter downplays the economic impetus. The impulse driving this journey is not as much greed as it is debauchery. The caravan consists of twenty-eight wagons, but “most of them are full of whores” (6). Furthermore, Dexter’s use of setting alerts us to the spiritual condition of the people when he describes the hills as being “black as the devil’s dreams” (Ibid). Dexter is turning the journey-of-progress motif on its head. These characters long for Deadwood not because it promises prosperity or renewal, but because it will cater to their base desires. Deadwood is not Eden, but Sodom.

Dexter undermines the notion of westward expansion as a higher calling by suggesting that Manifest Destiny brings out the worst in people. Virtually all characters in Deadwood are in varying degrees of downward trajectory, a moral equivalent of reverse-Darwinism. The town is full of violence, yet the characters are so desensitized as to shrug it off, treating violence as mundane. Saloons and hotels have bullet holes in the ceilings. One cartoonish scene involves Handsome Banjo Dick Brown who, while onstage, narrowly escapes the throw of an axe from a cuckolded husband, manages to return fire—hitting the axe-man with five bullets—and resumes his song. Such pastiche gains full impact when offset against the somber tone of characters detailing Indian violence, particularly the “terrible mutilations” suffered by Custer’s army (26). Characters speak of Custer’s death almost with reverence. The discrepancies, the comic violence offset against gruesomely somber violence, suggests that only Indian violence is horrible—or real for that matter, but White violence is all in fun.

Dexter could have offered lyrical descriptions of the landscape with no purpose beyond decorating the page, calling attention to how well he writes about place. But place in this novel serves a higher purpose. Place in Deadwood tells us about the base desires of the characters, tells us something about our commodification of land.

The lawless character of the town in the novel underscores the inherent amorality of Lakota displacement in the name of progress. And because Dexter creates tension between the real and the imagined, between fiction and history, he seemingly mocks biased history, history told by those who conquered. By placing the horrors of history and the amorality of frontier opportunism and violence alongside comic absurdity, Dexter defies a myth that serves the cause of American hubris.

 

Dexter, Pete. Deadwood. New York: Random House, 1986. 

Gunsmoke on Acid: Barry Hannah’s Deconstruction of the American Western in Never Die

by Matthew McEver

In American culture, we have always given the era of frontier expansion special treatment. The Literature of the American West has typically served the causes of Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism and functioned as the American creation myth. Such a mythology seems so ripe for lampoon, yet parodies of the Western are so few. But if you’re familiar with Barry Hannah’s work, you know that false history is an ever-constant theme in his fiction. Not surprisingly, Hannah pulls it off.

Hannah’s short novel, Never Die (1992), is a parody of the American Western where, echoing High Plains Drifter,  a gunfighter named Fernando intends to burn down the corrupt township of Nitburg, Texas–a settlement controlled by a judge who founded and named the town after himself. Judge Nitburg relies on his town regulator, a dwarf named Smoot, and hires a ruthless killer named Luther Nix to quell Fernando’s mutinous aspirations. Hannah mocks America’s sentimentalizing of the frontier by refusing to exalt the characters, through violence that is cartoonish but never redemptive, and by incorporating elements of progress and modernity such as the automobile and the airplane. The New York Times Book Review described the novel as “the Marx Brothers doing a combination western parody and slasher film.” Hannah’s adeptness at blending violence and comic absurdity is at a premium here, and the dark humor in this short novel is achieved largely through his negating our expectations of a Western.

In the novel’s opening, via a rapid-paced narration, we learn that during the Civil War twelve-year-old Kyle Nitburg lived in Louisiana with his beautiful mother who was a Confederate spy. Young Nitburg informs the Union army, the mother is subsequently hanged, the boy collects a one hundred dollar reward and heads for Texas.  Of course, a staple of the Western is the journey to the new Eden–but in Texas Nitburg marries, “the marriage did not go well,” and he sells his wife to the Comanches for four thousand dollars (Ibid). Rendering Nitburg’s depravity in such hyperbolic fashion, Hannah is forewarning us that in his Western anything goes, so it is no surprise that Nitburg “became a judge… (and) continued to cheat, lie and steal, and pretty soon the town and much land around it was his” (3).

Also customary for a Western is the mythical gunfighter who strolls into the corrupt town like a savior. Hannah’s legendary gunslinger is Fernando Muré, who once gunned down three angry men in a saloon by taking cover behind a card table and firing through the table itself. He wears a fedora and smokes long tan Mexican cigarettes. Women “wished he would assault them like a shovel of passion in the grave of their lusts” (7). Yet immediately after establishing Fernando as a superhuman desperado, Hannah begins to undermine him. Fernando vows to burn down the town of Nitburg–not only because it is corrupt, but because the Chinese have moved in and ruined his aspirations to open a coffin factory. As it turns out, Fernando is not Mexican but a faded southern aristocrat –a New Orleans native with a university education. He is an alcoholic and mediocre gambler who gambled all his bullets away. After proclaiming his intentions to burn down the corrupt town, Fernando the gunslinger is attacked and temporarily neutralized by the town regulator, a dwarf with a baseball bat.

Hannah subverts other stock characters as well–the doctor, the minister, the saloon madam, the schoolmarm. One reviewer likened the novel to an old rerun of Gunsmoke where everyone’s on acid. Even the villains are hardly standard fare for a Western. Smoot, the dwarf, keeps a mannequin in his room at the Nitburg Hotel, regularly bringing it out as a dinner guest. He also imagines stealing an automobile belonging to Navy Remington, a former sea captain. Smoot’s pursuit of the automobile grows complicated, though, when he develops romantic feelings for Remington’s pet monkey: “He was wild with tenderness for the animal. He could imagine nothing worse than her racing off across the plain without him” (64).

Repudiating the myth of redemptive violence, the violence in this Western serves no purpose. Luther Nix and his goons arrive and the carnage is over-the-top, Monty-Python-esque. Fernando’s burning of the town is anti-climactic, doesn’t have the anticipated effect of purging the town of its evil. Nothing is accomplished.

Never Die is an example of dark humor achieved by way of deconstructing a metanarrative. In other words, Hannah writes a darkly comic tale of the American West by breaking the rules and violating the treasured conventions of the Western. He refuses to comply with the expectations, which is what writers writing with purpose and intention always aim to do.

What Led Zeppelin Teaches Me about Writing

By Matthew McEver

In my second semester of graduate school, my professor returned a short story of mine, inscribed with the epitaph, “Not a story.” I was caught a bit off-guard because I had characters with rich backgrounds as well as setting, dialogue, and premise. Not a story, though.

Among the hats that I wear is that of prose editor—review of manuscripts, short stories. Don’t take what I’m about to say as wisdom being doled out, but as the observations of a fellow struggler. Having written my fair share of stories-that-aren’t stories, I’m quick to recognize one.

When is a story not a story?

A story is not a story when nothing is happening. Your manuscript may have a sense of place, engaging characters, dialogue. Let’s say that your setting is a traveling show and there’s a bearded lady. I’m in. As a reader and a writer, I’m rooting for you. But if I’m a few paragraphs into that story and I can’t grasp the conflict, the dilemma, I’m not sure why I’m here and I lose patience, even resent this burden, because there is great literature that I have yet to read.

My writer-friend, Phil Morris, once said that after at least a few paragraphs, “I need to know what the story is about so that I can start guessing where it all might be headed.” We read stories because we want to see something resolved, and we need to know the nature of the dilemma rather quickly. In songwriting, it’s called a hook—and if you want to hear some examples, listen to Led Zeppelin.

Guitarist Jimmy Page has a knack for reeling in the listener by way of the memorable riff: Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker, Immigrant Song. Those songs have recognizable openings that grab me by the throat, which is what I long for in reading the opening of a work of fiction.

Liken the opening sentences of prose to the opening riff of a song. The opening “prose riff” must provide voice, inventory, tone, character, setting, premise. A good opening prose riff can fuel the writing. Be warned, though, that you can fool yourself into believing that a quirky character or premise revealed in a clever opening paragraph is a story. Characters and settings and premises are not stories. They are elements of stories, much like a catchy riff and great guitar tone and thundering drums are elements of a song.

Benjamin Percy’s short story collection, The Language of Elk, features a story called, “The Bearded Lady Says Goodnight.” The first sentence reads, “The bearded lady is dead”—a great opening. What about the rest? Within a few lines, the narrator says, “She was my sweetheart.” At that moment, all sorts of possibilities enter our mind and, as Phil Morris says, we start guessing where this story might be headed. Easily, this story could have been about nothing, weird for its own sake. Percy could have mistaken novelty for story, but he doesn’t.

No matter how vivid the characters or how novel the premise, if nothing is happening then it’s not a story, just like riffs and chords and drums don’t mean it’s a song. (I could drag out many examples of “popular” songs that aren’t songs, but I won’t).

Ultimately, there’s no reason to read such literature or listen to such music because there’s plenty of work out there that is actually about something. Instead of reading a story about nothing, I’ll just grab my collection of Hemingway stories. Instead of wasting my time with hack musicians, I’ll just listen to Zeppelin. Songs that are songs. On vinyl.

 

All That Was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

by Matthew McEver

Have you heard about the new Hemingway App? Inspired by an abundance of poor writing in the business world, brothers Adam and Ben Long developed an online editing tool that will analyze your text, flag problems in your prose, make your writing “bold and clear.”

Here’s the rub: the app dislikes anything written above a tenth grade reading level. The algorithm flags passive voice, adverbs, polysyllabic words, and complex sentence structure. Pasting in my own text, the app judged everything I’ve written to this point as “hard to read.”

The New Yorker had some fun with this invention, submitting Hemingway’s own writing to the online editor. Alas, according to the Hemingway App, the bullfighting scenes from The Sun Also Rises should be rewritten. The app flagged the following excerpt for its passive voice and extraneous adverbs.

Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time.

I remember Marlin Barton once saying, “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules,” which is what Hemingway does in the cited passage. No question, when severed from a larger body of text, this passage is grammatically awkward. In context, though, there’s something exquisite and unsettling in the wording. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker says that the beauty in that phrase, “all that was faked turned bad,” feels like an elegy, appropriate for this novel. “Emotional uncertainty,” Crouch calls it. Of course, “quietly” and “calmly” are effective because we don’t associate calmness and quietness with bullfighting.

Great writers have a flair for knowing how and when to break the rules. One of my favorite examples is the juxtaposition of two run-on sentences in the third chapter of A Farewell to Arms.

I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear
and cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the
peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone
to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you
needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that
was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with
you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again
unknowing and not caring in the night, sure this was all and all and all and not caring.

You’d never get away with this winding verse in Comp 101. Hemingway, who knows what a run-on sentence is, gets away with it because the writing style earns its place. The run-on sentences not only break the rhythm of the prose; they also tell me something about the narrator. Given the erratic nature of these sentences, I have no doubt that our narrator is spiritually lost.

Grammatical evils—passive voice, adverbs, winding verse—have their place in creative writing when gracefully executed and thematically appropriate. Breaking the rules is fine, but only if you do so with a higher purpose. And like many aspects of the writing life, possessing a knack for such things, knowing when and how to break the rules, is mastered through ceaseless practice until it becomes second nature. There are no shortcuts, and there is no online tool that will turn your work into A Farewell to Arms.

From Airplanes to Absalom, Absalom

by Matthew McEver

Ninety-four years ago today, in 1919, William Faulkner published his first short story, “Landing in Luck,” in The Mississippian, the literary magazine of Ole Miss. “Landing in Luck,” about an air force cadet’s first solo flight, doesn’t receive near the notoriety of “A Rose for Emily” (1930) or “Barn Burning” (1939). “Landing” doesn’t even appear in my nine hundred-page collection of Faulkner’s short stories.  One of Faulkner’s biographers (J. Parini) even calls the story “generic.”

For that matter, compare Faulkner’s first novel, A Soldier’s Pay (1926), with The Sound and the Fury (1929) and the differences are quantifiable. The former offers occasional flashes of the brilliance to come, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the latter. Faulkner, like any other writer, had to develop his voice, hone his writing, cultivate.

Sure, I know we should write more. I get that. What I can’t get past, though, is that Faulkner’s writing improved so dramatically. The man who wrote this “generic” story about flying a plane went on to write Absalom, Absalom. How?

A clue is found in this bit of counsel attributed to Faulkner. I see this quote every now and then, and it’s a saying with which many of you are familiar, I’m sure:

“Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it,” Faulkner said. “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

I could never overemphasize how, in my own experience, better reading makes for better writing. My growth as a writer is directly related to how I challenge myself as a reader.

As I look ahead to completing the MFA in January, I’ve already realized that one of the benefits of graduate school was faculty advisers who prodded me into reading several works that I otherwise would’ve missed or avoided for one reason or another. Once the required reading of graduate school no longer looms, though, it’s tempting to settle into less challenging reading— to seek the kind of literature that comforts rather than confronts, to turn to books that will “teach me what I know.”

Reading lists aren’t just for school. Use the semester calendar, if it helps.  Choose titles with some purpose in mind. Reconsider works that you’ve “never gotten around to” reading. Better yet, ask other writer friends, perhaps those who understand your aesthetic, for their suggestions. Some of the most fascinating literature that I’ve read over the past two years came through suggestions from other grad students.  Or, maybe, there’s an author whose work you found—at an earlier time in your life—“too dense, too confusing, too much.” You might give that author a second chance, now that you see the world differently. For instance, my introduction to Faulkner was as a college freshman. (Many high schools still avoid him). I was ill-prepared to read his work at that time; therefore, I hated it. But as I ripened and got into literature and writing, I turned to and became a real admirer of Faulkner, appreciative of his willingness to take risks, reveling in his lyricism, recognizing the extent to which his writing rewards rereading.

As writers, we are either writing the same airplane story over and over, or we are moving into something beyond ourselves. None of us are Faulkner, and even he believed that his writing could be better. In the 1956 Paris Review interview, he said, “I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met.”

“Try to be better than yourself,” he added.

 

Creating an Unsettling Experience for the Reader: The Journal Format in Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie

by Matthew McEver

With Halloween a week away, it seems appropriate to discuss a work of literary horror. I’ve chosen Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie—which is not about zombies but, rather, her homage to Frankenstein. It is the gruesome story of Quentin, whose overriding obsession is to create a male companion by means of a crude lobotomy detailed in an antiquated medical text. (The novel is also a thoughtful interrogation of homophobia, but my focus will be on why the writing works). Quentin, though, has botched this effort numerous times. Sometimes the abductions go wrong and thus far, despite meticulous planning and flawless execution, the lobotomies have all gone wrong. The story moves toward the climactic abduction and transformation of a young man nicknamed Squirrel that Quentin considers his holy grail.

Typically, I would have no interest in such a story—yet I wanted to know how someone like Joyce Carol Oates tells it. Oates makes the decision to tell it by immersing the reader in Quentin’s depraved mind, by means of a journal. The novel itself is Quentin’s journal, though it reads like a monologue. The narrator’s prose is laden with unconventional punctuation, overuse of italics, ampersands, exclamation points, and words written in ALL CAPS, all of which is unsettling. Moreover, Quentin refers to himself in the third person, also disorienting to the reader. Oates masters the technique of knowing the rules of grammar in order to break the rules of grammar. The erratic nature of the prose parallels the erratic nature of Quentin’s mind. (The reader may find this unconventional style of prose distracting for about the first twenty-five pages or so, before becoming accustomed to Quentin’s voice and manner).

The text also includes numerous scribbles and drawings reminiscent of those in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. These doodles, of seemingly ordinary objects such as a key, a person on a bicycle, or a baby chick, contribute to the disquieting tone of the narrative. Oates also renders the story in a stream of consciousness narration—a technique that, especially in conjunction with Quentin’s semiliterate prose, magnifies Quentin’s psychotic nature: “I smile & say YES DOCTOR. NO DOCTOR. Sit & smile & my hair cut & parted in a new way… Dr. E__’s prognosis of his patient Q__ P__ is very good. Q__ P__ is ‘definitely making progress’” (166).

The journal format enables us to realize that Quentin is almost childlike in terms of his cognition. His obsession with Squirrel reads like a high school crush. He writes, “Q__ P__ Crazy for Squirrel!!!” in his journal (105), and repeatedly calls Squirrel at home, only to hang up after hearing his voice. Quentin also has fits of jealousy on seeing Squirrel interact with people, writing on his prey “betraying me in full view!” (126)—and, in an attempt to further humanize Quentin, Oates includes elements of dark humor. One of the more memorable examples is how Quentin, in his botched attempts to lobotomize his prey, expresses his disappointment in teen vernacular, assigning himself letter grades: “My first three ZOMBIES – all F’s” (57). He also boasts of how he “always drives at the speed limit & obeys all traffic regulations. Whether there is contraband cargo aboard the van or not” (83).
 
On occasion, Oates weaves familial, communal, and institutional failure into the text without being heavy handed, allowing these observations to flow out of the story. Quentin is a person of privilege. Following his first, bungled abduction he serves no jail time, but attends mandatory sessions with a mental health clinician and a probation officer, both of whom are overworked and lethargic. Thanks to his parents, Quentin has his own apartment, a job as caretaker of the property, and he is enrolled at a community college. By contrast, the ideal zombie “specimens” are society’s nobodies: foreign university students, hitchhikers, drifters, junkies, “or from the black projects downtown” (28).

If you want to see how an accomplished author gets inside the head of a psychopath, or learn new methods for creating an unsettling experience for the reader, Oates’ novel is recommended. The stream of consciousness, journal format encourages the reader to follow the thoughts of a character we find to be sickening yet, to an extent, familiar. Perhaps the greatest success of this novel is that Oates creates a character who is memorable and frightening not because he is eccentric or flamboyant, but because he is ordinary. Quentin could be anyone, which is what is most unsettling about Zombie.

Works Cited

Oates, Joyce Carol. Zombie. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.

McCarthy’s Comic Foil: Humor in Suttree

By Matthew McEver

With the upcoming release of a film scripted by Cormac McCarthy as well as the film adaptation of Child of God on the horizon, I’d like to offer another McCarthy work as an example of how to fold humor into an otherwise harrowing story. Suttree (1979) is “a doomed Huck Finn,” as the New York Times put it. Having rejected modernity and American middle class-values, the protagonist becomes a fisherman on the Tennessee River in 1950s Knoxville.

Thematically, Suttree is a meditation on mortality. Death flows constant and relentless in this story as the Tennessee River. The novel even opens with (I suppose I should warn you that spoilers are coming) a suicide and, roughly one-third into the novel, the protagonist’s child dies and, later, a lover dies as well.

Why would someone want to read this novel? And how is it that Suttree is largely regarded as McCarthy’s most humorous novel? How does he pull it off?

McCarthy tends to bracket the novel’s most harrowing scenes with humorous episodes, extensive comic narratives largely involving the character Gene Harrogate. Harrogate’s entrance into the novel is by way of a scene in which he is arrested for trespassing on a man’s melon patch and having intimate relations with watermelons. Soon after, under incarceration, he intoxicates himself by chugging hard cider made from half-rotten oranges. From then on, any time we see the name “Harrogate” on the page, we automatically laugh.

To look more closely a how the author uses Harrogate in order to balance the experience for the reader, consider Wanda’s senseless death by landslide. Wanda’s death is preceded by narratives in which Harrogate, determined to survive in Knoxville, constructs a boat from car hoods and aims to enrich himself by trading dead bats for cash. Following the tragedy, we read of Harrogate ’s plan to dig into an abandoned bank vault beneath the city as well as his scheme to rob pay telephones. 

The bracketing scenes involving Harrogate, within the larger scope of the novel, function as comedic counterpunches—counterpunches to the novel’s more somber themes, woven into the novel in order to prevent the novel’s tone from descending into pure gloom. In other words, Harrogate is one of the reasons we keep reading this novel. (Another reason is McCarthy’s lyricism, which is a matter of discussion for another day).

People who study the use of humor call this technique Relief Theory. It is when moments of humor function as a “pressure valve,” providing small moments of relief in what would otherwise be a bleak and unremitting story for a reader. Be warned, however, that deliberate attempts at humor within a certain kind of story can backfire, inciting not laughter but pushback from the reader. My recommendation is to study someone who has a knack for it, like McCarthy, and Suttree is a great work with which to begin.

McCarthy, Cormac. Suttree. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print. 

Faulkner’s Potboiler

By Matthew McEver

Sanctuary is considered one of Faulkner’s more “accessible” novels. Do not, however, equate accessibility with light-heartedness. Sanctuary speaks directly to human evil. On publication, one critic even called it the most brutal book he’d ever read. While Faulkner’s lyrical prose is certainly evident, I’d like to highlight his balancing act between brutality, shock, and dark humor. The hillbilly comedy, sexual witticisms, and morbid absurdity provide some of the novel’s finest moments because they spotlight the themes of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and propriety in the South.

Mississippi debutante Temple Drake is kidnapped and sexually violated by her abductor, Popeye. What makes this novel so Faulkneresque, of course, that Popeye suffers from erectile dysfunction and “consummates” his relationship with Temple by using a corn cob. What follows is a bizarre parody of a honeymoon as Popeye ushers Temple into the absurd world of Miss Reba’s Memphis brothel. Miss Reba plays matriarch, welcoming the couple, speaking as though Popeye were her son: “I been after him for, how many years I been after you to get you a girl, honey?” (144). With rosary in one hand and a beer in the other, Miss Reba toasts Temple’s loss of virginity.

Fonzo and Virgil’s Memphis visit is a humorous yet plausible rendition of two rubes visiting the big city—a comic counterpoint to Temple’s nightmarish experience. As though extending the honeymoon theme, the two mistake the brothel for a hotel – “Who ever heard of anybody just living in a three storey house?” (191). On finding an undergarment in their room, Fonzo assumes that Miss Reba is a dress-maker and a woman having a fitting must have left her underwear behind by mistake. When the two rubes actually visit another brothel, they fear that Miss Reba may discover the truth and throw them out. Fonzo’s alibi is, “We been to prayer meeting” (197) which is Faulkner’s way of having fun since “prayer meeting” can be a sexual euphemism.

After Faulkner lampoons a honeymoon, he lampoons a funeral. The funeral’s setting is not a church or mortuary, but a roadhouse. Some of the mourners want to hear the orchestra play a hymn, while others want to hear a Broadway show tune. Instead of reverence there is chaos, and the account of the tumbling corpse reads like slapstick. The following scene, with Miss Reba and friends, initially appears to follow convention as mourners return home and discuss the funeral but, of course, the setting here is a brothel—a setting that undermines all sense of decorum. Now learning of Popeye’s perversions, a haughty Miss Reba expresses moral outrage over the shame that he has brought onto her whorehouse. Like previous comic scenes in the novel, the burlesque funeral and ensuing tea party in the brothel are not intended as stand-alone comic diversions but as threads woven into Faulkner’s ongoing themes of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Fittingly, Uncle Bud, the beer-swiping child, finds all of this hypocrisy to be nauseating and vomits.

The slapstick funeral anticipates the equally-mocking trials of Lee and Popeye (192). At Lee’s trial, Temple appears as a witness for the prosecution, behaves like a zombie, perjures herself, and is escorted away as if she were a bride at a wedding with no cross-examination. An eight minute jury deliberation results in a lynching. A voice from the mob, perhaps speaking for everyone, is not angered by the rape itself but by a wasted opportunity: “I saw her. She was some baby. Jeez. I wouldn’t have used no cob” (294). As the novel reaches its conclusion, Popeye’s trial echoes Lee’s. Popeye has an ineffectual lawyer, the jury deliberates for eight minutes, and Popeye dies for the wrong crime. The reader is as indifferent to this “injustice” as Popeye. When the minister offers to pray for the condemned, Popeye says, “Go ahead. Don’t mind me” (314) and Popeye’s chief concern, as the noose is fitted around his neck, is that his hair is in place.

Sanctuary explores evil and meaninglessness, yet it is unforgettably humorous, sometimes prompting nervous laughter and, rather than serving as diversions, the comic scenes in the novel organically flow out of Faulkner’s tendency to push depraved, impotent, and self-righteous characters to the limits. The novel anticipates what is now recognized as existentialist dark humor, particularly evident in the manner these characters fall into total apathy.

Faulkner conceded that Sanctuary was a commercial effort, a potboiler, “a cheap idea… conceived to make money,” proving that accessibility does not preclude thoughtfulness.

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

 

Werewolves and the War on Terror: A Literary Snob on Betrayal

by Matthew McEver

We are seeing a revival or reclamation of the fantastic in literary fiction. Writers like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell are being praised for combining “the weird” with psychological realism and dry humor. At one time I would have felt fairly confident offering an Amazonian endorsement, saying, “If you liked Bender and Russell, you might also like Benjamin Percy.” But after reading his latest novel, Red Moon, I’m more inclined to say, “If you like Stephen King …”

Percy is a graduate of Brown University and received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University. His debut short story collection, The Language of Elk (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2006), featured stories with outlandish premises—a man falls in love with a bearded lady, a husband is obsessed with tracking down Sasquatch, a father excavates a mummified body and stores it in his home—yet for all the quirkiness, Percy dealt with human longings in these stories. His follow up short story collection, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) was compelling, naturalistic. Here, Percy pushed characters to their emotional limits as they dealt with fathers in Iraq, bear attacks, and a nuclear accident. His first novel, The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2011), about three generations of males on a weekend hunting trip, reads like a tribute to Dickey’s Deliverance. These works could be described as realistic, literary fiction.

Red Moon is another matter. It is Percy’s entry into literary horror. He deals with werewolves in this novel, but not in the Lon Chaney Jr. sense. Lycans, as they are called, are people infected with an animal-bourne pathogen along the lines of Mad Cow Disease, enabling people to take on a wolf-like form at will. Lycans have suffered persecution for centuries and, currently, they cannot serve in law enforcement or medicine and they are federally mandated to take a controversial drug that keeps transformation at bay with side effects.

Like Shelley and Stoker in their times, Percy uses the idea of werewolves living among us in order to tap into the cultural unease of the day. The anxieties channeled here relate directly to the war on terror and the fear of Muslims. The novel even begins with the radical wing of this persecuted minority orchestrating a grand act of domestic terrorism. The primary point-of-view characters are two young adult survivors, Patrick and Claire. Patrick is the lone survivor of the lycan terrorist attack, and Claire is on the run after a government-sanctioned military strike on her lycan community in retaliation for the terrorist episode. It also turns out that the leader of free world, who campaigned on a theme of getting tough on lycans, is now infected.

No question, Percy has a strong narrative voice. The prose is lyrical, the descriptions of setting and action vivid. In other words, he has a knack for world-building. Yet some readers will find Red Moon trying. Moments of emotional impact in the lives of characters in Red Moon are often summarized. We are often led away from pivotal scenes as though cutting to black for a commercial break, then dropped into another scene, another subplot, and then we return to the original scene for the summation.

If you enjoyed the character-driven fiction of Percy’s previous work, be aware that Red Moon is driven more by premise—and action scenes. Also, the pacing of the novel is almost frantic at times, exacerbated by the use of present tense. As a technique, present tense creates a sense of urgency, but 530 pages of present tense feels like a screenplay. Coincidentally, Percy is currently writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of The Wilding. Perhaps film adaptations of novels are Percy’s goal. Perhaps my lackadaisical attitude toward Red Moon is tied to mourning what appears to be a literary author’s move into commercial fiction. More pointedly, it seems as though Percy is moving toward writing stories meant for the big screen. (Reportedly his next novel is a post-apocalyptic take on the Lewis and Clark passage). I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge an author for such a move, but I will miss the emotional arcs and character depth in less grandiose stories about bear attacks and bearded ladies.

Percy, Benjamin. Red Moon. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013.