A Southern Gothic Love Story

A Southern Gothic Love Story

Put on a pot of bourbon and pull up a chair. This is life, love, and lore in the Deep South.

Creative Loafing Book Review: Where All Light Tends to Go

David Joy’s big country noir debut 

‘Where All Light Tends to Go’ leaves a great first impression

The South isn't just a region or direction. She's an existence. Years of practice have fine-tuned her adversarial skills, generating one of the best damn antagonists literature has to offer. She's flawed but captivating. Has a backstory (Trail of Tears, Civil War, civil rights ... ). She's convincing. Her past is troubled (see backstory). And in David Joy's debut novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, the South's reputation for being a badass is backed by Jackson County's intensely complex characters.

No one knows the word struggle better than 18-year-old Jacob McNeely, who carries his birthright like a "loaded gun of hope and faith." With a junkie mama and a meth-dealing daddy, he's battling more demons than a tent of Pentecostals. But drugs aren't the only poison running through Jacob's veins. While the McNeely name may protect Jacob at times, it also prohibits him from being anyone but a McNeely. It imprisons him in an isolated Appalachian town where pistols, Bibles, and methamphetamines are law.

Waiting around to die is something Jacob has done for some time. "It wasn't the dying part that ate him. It was the waiting." Jacob's fatalistic approach isn't a ploy for sympathy. It's a by-product of resilience. This ability to bend and not break has kept him alive over the years. It's a Kevlar vest that shields his empathy and desire from the bullets of despair. This is what the writing world calls a damn fine character. Joy has many of them.

Jacob's multifaceted structure is the author's way of instilling in him a fighting chance against that tough beautiful bitch, the South. Jacob may or may not be able to defeat her, but at least he's been given the skills to confront her.

Charlie McNeely, Jacob's daddy, is a mean drug-running son-of-a-gun. He keeps the law in one pocket, his pistol and Bible in the other. "Outlawing was just as much a matter of blood as hair color and height," Jacob expresses. He desperately wants to escape both his lineage and the family business, but he's trapped in tradition.

The one light in Jacob's glazed-over eyes is Maggie Jennings, who has always been "something slippery he couldn't grasp." Maggie's been accepted to a college in another city but doesn't have the money to go. Though Jacob dropped out of high school, the two have remained friends, bonded by the viscous threads of an impoverished childhood. From a distance, Jacob watches over her, intent on making sure she escapes what he feels he cannot. "It had always been obvious Maggie was only passing through."

Some may feel that Joy's use of clichés in the novel is overkill, but writers who choose loyalty to their characters at the potential cost of readership are not only courageous but, in my opinion, admirable. Credibility often has a price.

If you're expecting a happily-ever-after ending, you won't find it in Joy's novel. It's not for the fainthearted or what Charlie McNeely refers to as "pussies." Southern Gothic is not a genre with a light at the end of the tunnel. Just ask Jacob: "That old adage rests entirely on the direction being traveled."

What you will find between the covers is a combustible concoction of well-crafted characters and a gripping plot. Joy's ability to cook up a story that is equal parts of both makes a compelling read. Of course, he can't take credit for the South. She's been antagonizing families for years (see As I Lay Dying's Bundrens). A gritty narrative propelled by poignant imagery and stunning prose, Joy's Where All Light Tends to Go is the South with a capital, albeit slightly crooked, S.

Where All Light Tends to Go
by David Joy. Penguin.
Books. $26.95. 272 pp.

http://clatl.com/atlanta/david-joys-big-country-noir-debut/Content?oid=13785139

 

 

Film Review: As I Lay Dying

Disclaimer: I'd like to make it known that I'm a huge Franco fan and not just because we share a love of Faulkner.

 

Directed by James Franco, As I Lay Dying, made me feel that dying may have been a good alternative to seeing Addie Bundren buried in Jefferson. So much tragedy and grief, and poverty in such a short span of time. It's what Faulkner refers to as, "the outraged entrails of events."

 

Another name for this film could have been Brian De Palma's Great Influence on Billy Faulkner. This is not to say that the acting is not superb. It really is. I just think a split screen wasn't the best choice cinematically.

 

Another Disclaimer: I've never been a fan of the split screen.

 

It may have worked had the film been a modernized version but nothing about Faulkner screams dual image to me. His work is very singular. Complex characters with very few choices. There are no forked roads or turning points for the characters of his novels--only family trees that have no branches and one-way paths that all lead to the 4Ds: destitution, dysfunction, depravity, and disgrace. Had Faulkner not been a writer, he would have made a damn good country-western singer. 

 

I feel Franco captured the tragic essence of what should have been a simple burial. The film did a great job of following the original story of a poor, desperate family's attempt to honor the matriarch's dying wish.The only thing I didn't find engaging was the split screen, and that's just a personal thing. Don't be offended James. I still adore you.

Oh, and if anyone ever figures out what the hell Anse is saying throughout the film, drop me a line and let me know. 

Film Review: Samuel Bleak

Dustin Dugas Schuetter (Go Louisiana!) produced, directed and played the lead in this film, which I must make known, was pretty damn good. Yes, it's awkward at times and a little cheesy in areas (people love the cheese), but sometimes I give film and literature extra points when I can't guess the ending. I'm usually pretty good at this, but this one caught me totally off guard. I like that.

A mute vagabond, (I just love this word because it doesn't sound quite as dirty as drifter or gypsy, which both imply the need for a bath and a toe-nail trim) found living in the woods upsets the social balance of a small town that hasn't seen him in twenty years. Samuel Bleak's vagabond-ness can be overlooked because he is sort of hot in a gothic, backwoods, mentally unbalanced sort of way--even with the shoe polish sideburns.

 

As an eight-year-old, Bleak ran into the woods after the violent death of his mother (Pa, Pa, there's a fire in the barn?) who was one of those kooky writers that give us all a bad name. Bleak, though not interested in speaking, evidently types on his mother's old typewriter, which clearly wasn't damaged in the explosive fire that took her life. Hmmm...curious. And even more curious-er is that the ribbon still works after twenty years. I know. I know. People aren't supposed to think about these things in movies but I do. Considering how often I have to replace my ink cartridge in the printer, perhaps I should pull out the old Underwood. Maybe if I lick the ribbon, it will still work.


When Bleak is placed in a mental institution, he is visited by his father who comes across as a drunk redneck asshole. I hated him but changed my mind by the end of the film. (This almost never happens.) Dark, unexplainable things happen between Bleak and his psychiatrist, who is seemingly more unbalanced than he is, and though she lacks the sideburns, I did catch the ghost of a mid-life mustache lingering above her pearly whites. 

Film Review: Last Kind Words

All the necessary Southern Gothic elements: Eerie music, misty river, angry father, abused mother/sister, ghosts, slaves, hangings and, yes, incest. What would the South be without it? Shit twice and fall back in it. The only thing missing is dueling banjos and a satisfying ending. (Even Deliverance offered up a satisfying ending.) Enjoyed it up until the last 15 minutes but well worth it until then. (Isn't that what Burt Reynolds said?) On a serious note, I'm still captivated by Geeshie Wiley's haunting voice and lyrics. They were my favorite part of the movie.


Meanwhile here's a few alternative endings: 

 

1. Eli cuts Amanda down from the tree and they both fall into the rabbit hole and drink tea with the Mad Hatter who looks suspiciously like one of the Allman brothers.

 

2. Eli cuts Amanda down from the tree but in the process impales himself on one of her brittle bones due to her lactose intolerance when she was alive. 

 
3. Eli never cuts Amanda down but instead carves their initials into the tree bark and decorates her bones with festive lights.
 
4. Eli leaves Amanda hanging but cuts the tree down and NO ONE ever hears it fall.
 
5. Burt Reynolds (wearing an I heart Loni Anderson T-shirt) shows up and mounts the incestuous brother never once mentioning his mouth.
 

Book Review: A Long Day at the End of the World

Brent Hendricks' story of desecration and revelation in the Appalachian South is a true account, and a pilgrimage, of the horrific discovery in 2002 of 339 decomposing bodies (only 226 of these were identified) at Tri-State Crematory, a place in rural Georgia where Hendricks' father had been sent for cremation.

Brent Marsh, owner of the crematorium had not cremated bodies for more than five years. Instead, he dumped the bodies where he could on his property and filled urns with concrete dust. Is anyone else thinking of Ian McEwan's Cement Garden? [insert chills here]

 

 Long Day at the End of the World is less than 200 pages, but it is not an easy read. Though it certainly could be read in one setting, I found myself lingering on Hendricks' poetic comparisons, in which he uses Rilke poems, ghost flowers, Faulkner's End of Man address, Greek Mythology, the Book of Revelation, a shit fairy and alchemy to try and understand the largest mass desecration in American History. I don't think it's possible to read this book and not see the images Hendricks' words conjure like the fused bodies molded together among Christmas decorations in a shed behind the crematorium or the image of Brent Marsh's wedding, which took place on the Marsh lake where just a short distance away, lay the rotting corpses of those he dumped instead of cremating. This is beyond disturbing on so many levels. It's so sociopathic that I cannot even make a decent joke. Except for maybe this one. Was their wedding song Lynyrd Skynyrd's THAT SMELL? Just morbidly curious.

 

Marsh first claimed that the cremation oven or "retort" was broken but this proved false. (Clearly a false retort. Sorry, it had to be said.) It was indicated later that Marsh might have been a victim of mercury toxicity due to the faulty ventilation system at the crematorium. This means, it is suspected that Marsh became a hoarder of rotting corpses because he inhaled too many fumes from burnt dental fillings. Maybe these fumes affected the entire family and this is why they couldn't smell decomposing flesh during the wedding festivities? Clearly, it must have affected their sight as well. Okay, enough with the Marsh bashing. Back to the pilgrimage. 

It's obvious that Hendricks had a troubled relationship with his father and that throughout his journey to Noble, Georgia (Noble, really? Oh the irony) and the remains of the Tri-State Crematorium, he struggles for answers. He "measures the future by measuring the past." He continually reflects on the Oklahoma farm where his father lived so many years before it was flooded by the government to become Oologah Lake, a Cherokee word for dark cloud. In his dreams, the flooding becomes biblical like the Great Flood where he envisions his father living in this underwater world of bloated cows and sunken rooms. 
 
he 2011 movie,  Sahkanaga,  is based on the Tri-State tragedy. Written and directed by John Henry Summerour, the movie's cast consists of locals, many of which had a personal connection to the desecration. You can view details at www.sahkanaga.com . The movie is on my list to review.

There is sadness, remorse, laughter and irony in A Long Day at the End of the World. It comes specifically in the stories Hendricks relays about his mother who one day announced that she wanted to exhume his father who had at the time been buried after an unexpected death in a cemetery in a north Georgia resort community. She wanted his body cremated and shipped to her in Santa Fe so they could be scattered over the mountains together when the time came. Against the family's wishes (Hendricks and his sister), the mother exhumed the body, which was then taken to Tri-State where it laid stagnant and rotting in a coffin for five years, unbeknownst to anyone but Brent Marsh.

The mother assumed the box she had received in the mail was her husband and for many years, she talked to a "box of nothing." She often recounted the story of the custom-made cowboy boots he'd bought for $800. His name was carved into the sole. Initially, there had been a fight over the cost of the boots, Mr. Hendricks being newly retired at the time. That these boots obviously gave him some sort of identity was an understatement. Because he had originally been embalmed, Mr. Hendricks was not a candidate for the DNA tracing used to identify the remains found at Tri-State. But, thankfully, he was prepared. The $800 pair of cowboy boots that caused such a problem in his marriage were the only thing not completely deteriorated in the coffin that was tossed on the Marsh's land, and because of this, Mr. Hendricks reclaimed his identity.

I will not forget these images. I will not forget this story. I will buy a pair of cowboy boots and carve my name in the sole. 

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