Wednesday, June 20, 2007

UNSHELVED: 'Tobacco Road' by Erskine Caldwell

I didn't plan it this way, but the second installment in my fledgling UNSHELVED series features another Southern fiction classic: Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. Both the book and the author are new to me, although I had heard about them for years, and the novel has been on my list of must-read American classics for a long time now.

When I was younger I used to wonder where the whole "Southern Gothic" tradition came from (being far from "Southern" myself!)... but the older I get and the more fiction I read from that region, the clearer it becomes to me. These writers, quite simply, are obsessed with death. Now why that is is a complicated subject I am sure -- no doubt William Faulkner would attribute it at least in part to the "South's original sin," slavery, hanging like the sword of Damocles above their collective heads -- but nevertheless, you don't have to look very far for examples. The aforementioned Faulkner (just think of that most "gothic" of all Southern classics, As I Lay Dying), Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Ann Porter (Pale Horse, Pale Rider... hello!?!), Walker Percy... and the latest, most celebrated and perhaps bleakest exemplar of the tradition, Cormac McCarthy (who recently was quoted as saying, "Death is the only subject.").

Another hallmark of these writers is that they seem to have a knack for mixing a witty, regionalized gallows humor (often sparked and exacerbated by that other Southern obsession, "old time religion") in with their musings about death, which often makes for gut-busting, if not unsettling, reading. I've noticed this in works from all of the writers mentioned above, with the exception of Porter (although I've only read the three stories from her collection Pale Horse, Pale Rider, so I can't really comment on her work as a whole). McCarthy's early novel Suttree reads almost like a master's thesis in how to mix the above ingredients together into your own weirdly potent, haunting brew. There is certainly dark humor sprinkled over the pages of Faulkner, if you have the mind and the patience to look for it. And then of course there's the peerless work of Flannery O'Connor -- you can't find fiction that's much funnier, and yet more deadly serious (outside of Shakespeare perhaps), than hers is.

Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road fits neatly into this venerable tradition. I doubt very much if that's what he was aiming for (nor if he was even aware of the "tradition" itself), but nevertheless, this is a very funny and yet, very bleak book that deeply unnerves (I would even say, saddens) you, even while it is tickling your funny bone. I can think of very few books that delve so deeply into the lives of the poorest of the poor -- the kinds of people so easily and so callously dismissed in this country, at least nowadays, as "white trash" or "hicks." In this way (and in others), Caldwell's book was considered somewhat pioneering, as it portrayed the hardscrabble ways of poor white sharecroppers who, even in Depression-era Georgia, are so far down on the social ladder that even the negroes make fun of and persecute them. (Not that the "negroes" should be low down on that ladder, but considering how they themselves were treated in that place and time, it's almost unthinkable to imagine anyone more hard off than they were!) One of the remarkable aspects of the book, then, is how Caldwell manages to portray these people with some degree of sympathy, even as he presents a very unadorned and unromanticized portrait of them -- they prejudices, their lack of education, their meanness and especially, their ignorance, passed down from one generation to another.

Plot Synopsis:
Tobacco Road tells the story of the Lesters, a dirt-poor family of sharecroppers living on a dusty farm in rural Georgia (outside of Augusta) during the Great Depression. And when I say "dirt-poor," I mean they have nothing at all, not even any food: the darkly comic opening chapters depict a ridiculous brawl between Jeeter Lester, the pater familias of the family, and his neighbor "Lov" over a 50-cent sack of turnips (though that 50 cents represented half of Lov's daily wage!). Lov has married Jeeter's 12-year-old daughter Pearl, but keeps complaining of his inability to consummate the marriage because the young girl refuses to touch, or even talk, to him. Jeeter's response is, essentially, "Hell, she's your problem now."

The Lester family, to put it mildly, is a mess. Obviously illiterate and ignorant towards most of what goes on in the world, they seem to have lived lives of thankless labor, cruelty and greed, and have very little to show for any of it. Jeeter and his wife Ada have spawned nine children, but most of them have run off to Augusta and want nothing to do with them anymore. Only their youngest son, Dude, and an 18-year-old daughter with a harelip, Ellie Mae, remain living with them. Jeeter is supposed to be working the fields to provide an income for them, but he can't afford any of the equipment or fertilizer necessary to do so any more, so he occasionally attempts to sell firewood for pennies... otherwise, they have no income, which is why they are more or less starving. One of his older sons is rumored to be well-off now in Augusta, and Jeeter keeps vowing to go and visit him to ask for some help financially, but of course he never does.

Jeeter's mother, referred to only as Grandma Lester, lives with them too, but she moves eerily around the house and property like a ghost, ignored by everybody and mumbling to herself. At every turn, Caldwell makes sure to point out that no one listens or pays the slightest attention to her at all. You get the feeling she has long since gone senile and that her mind is completely addled, but no one bothers to try to help her in any way. For me, she added a disturbing and creepy element to the story, especially as she is involved in the book's terrible, tragic climax.

Another character, Sister Bessie, enters the scene and forces herself into the Lester's sad existence. Sister Bessie is a traveling preacher, affiliated with no church but insistent upon the importance of her "ministry," which she inherited, she says, from her first husband when he died. She insists that the Holy Ghost has told her she was to marry Dude (16 years old) so that she could make him a preacher to help her "do the Lord's work." She entices Dude to marry her by saying she would buy him a new automobile, with the money she received after her husband's death. All Dude cares about is driving the car, so he agrees to marry Sister Bessie without really knowing what he's agreeing to. It should be noted that Sister Bessie has a facial deformity as well: she is missing a bone in her nose, so her nostrils are facing straight out and can be peered into, like a pig's. For some reason (and this is one of the oddest and most unsettling quirks in this strange, morbid novel), Caldwell makes a big deal of these facial deformities, drawing the reader's (and the other characters') attention to them again and again, as if these were proof of the depravity of the people he's portraying.

As this description may reveal, there are many elements in the story that reminded me strongly of Flannery O'Connor's fiction. It's interesting to note that Caldwell's novel preceded all of her writing -- the mix of dark humor, grotesque elements and untethered, Bible-thumping religion makes the comparison almost inescapable. And yet, whereas O'Connor famously allows her characters graced moments of genuine revelation, Caldwell seems to be wallowing in the iniquities and ignorance of his, and is at pains to show their inherent selfishness, avarice and lust. In fact, Tobacco Road could almost be read as a road map across the Seven Deadly Sins -- save gluttony, perhaps... although even there, the characters' obsession with finding food, though understandable considering the circumstances, bears some ugly fruit as well by the time the tale is told.

At any rate, the remainder of the novel follows Dude and Bessie around as they go and purchase a new car, drive it around the countryside and into Augusta, get married (Bessie performs the ceremony herself of course, being filled with the Holy Ghost and all), crack up the car several times and finally return to the Lester farm, where Jeeter proceeds to covet both Dude's new car, and his new wife. This dark, twisted farce ends on several tragic notes, without a trace of redemption for anyone in sight.

I've already noted several aspects of the book that struck me, but here I'd like to point out something that will seem totally at odds with everything I've written above: the book has a grim, morbid sense of humor that had me cracking up more than I'd even like to admit! Part of this is subjective, of course -- I just happen to find portrayals of zealous, evangelical Bible thumpers particularly hilarious. I don't know what it is exactly; maybe it's as simple as Flannery O'Connor's response when asked why she, a devout Catholic, didn't feature Catholic characters in her fiction: "The Protestants make better fanatics." Regardless, I found the dialog between the characters, especially Jeeter's constant griping about everything and Sister Bessie's absurdly self-righteous proclamations, hilarious.

I think the other thing I didn't expect about this book is how frank it is in portraying the sexual lusts of its characters, and the violence in it as well. Neither of these seem all that shocking by today's standards when you read them, but at the time, it must have been quite alarming to readers. Also, the fact that there are no consequences even discussed, let alone portrayed, for the two unexpected killings in this novel (both carried out with the automobile!) surprised me as well, and made me wonder what Caldwell was trying to say. Were the poor sharecroppers of the time so hard up for food and so stuck on their own concerns, that all sense of right and wrong went out the window? By portraying the brutal deaths of two of the society's weakest and most inconsequential members, was Caldwell trying to make some kind of statement about the neglect of the helpless in the rural South? Who knows. What can be said is that these deaths are put forth without sympathy in the narrative, and hardly even noticed at all by the characters themselves. It creates a chilling effect.

Reasons it's worth reading (or re-reading):
I don't know if I'm doing a good job "selling" this book or not. I'm not fully convinced I even want to sell it. And yet, it does seem like a pioneering book in some ways. It is an unflinching look at the spiritual, moral and physical depravity of a people whom the world had long since turned its back on -- who, in the most trying circumstances, reveal the corrupted heart of man in all of its ugliness. It is a story of lust, greed and ignorance. It has comic elements, but it ends on a very somber, even despairing, note. One wonders why Caldwell would want to write such an unredeeming story, especially since he doesn't seem to have grown up in such horrible conditions. Satirizing the self-made, hellfire, home-brewed religion of Southern Protestant hillbilly preachers is one thing, and for me it makes for hilarious reading. But showing us the poorest of the poor and the things they do to destroy each other, and how little they care about it, leaves you wondering what the ultimate point was. As Caldwell again and again draws your attention back to details like physical deformities and incestuous longings, you can't help but think he's making a statement about the ultimate worth of man -- and it's not a positive one. Like some well-executed horror movies, this novel leaves you morbidly fascinated, but underneath that, strangely sad.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Well done report on a bizarre, almost scary-sounding book by Duke! I have heard of this book a lot but never knew the story. This Unshelved update filled me right in on that……Duke’s powers of literary analysis are probably unnoticeable to him but apparent to the innumerable readers of his commentaries. I assure you, anyone who reads this, that there is no way in hell I could have come up with a reference ‘the sword of Damocles’ if you spotted me Google and the Library of Congress. Further, the O’Connor quote he chucks in here like a little extra spice on this critical chili (!!??) may be well known to him, but it wouldn’t be to most people. Worked perfectly, too. I can honestly say I found this writeup compelling and interesting, but like Duke said, I ain’t sure I want this book ‘sold’ to me either! Sounds pretty dark all around… is fascinating how these tragic poor may have lived in a terrible era in our nation’s history….to all you clowns who are missing this new series on The Secret Thread, I suggest you heed the ringing bell: school is in session.