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‘Despair, Destitution, and Undiluted Evil’

Friday, May 18, 2012

What a difference a century makes in the portrayal of country folk.

Any genre of art has characteristics and peculiarities that can be developed to such an extreme degree that it becomes for some a kind of pornography. I don’t actually know if that is true, but it is the sort of bold thematic generalization with which one likes to begin an essay. Bear with me and I will get down to cases directly.

The hard-boiled style of literature that began with Dashiell Hammett and reached its highest expression in the novels and stories of Raymond Chandler has, since the days of those masters, gradually declined into mannerism and grotesquerie. It is a fairly straight line from the tough-but-compassionate, shady-yet-principled Philip Marlowe to, say, Nick Corey, the blandly vicious main character of Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280.

The main activities, almost the only activities, of the characters in this book are sex and murder, with drinking and religiosity running a close third and fourth.

A friend recently interrupted my marathon reading of John Buchan spy novels—by the way, a perfectly parallel line runs at the same depressed angle from the heroics of the diffident and self-deprecating Richard Hannay of The Thirty-Nine Steps to John Le Carré’s bleakly disillusioned Alec Leamas, the spy who comes in from the cold, and the circus turns of the 007 books—interrupted, I was saying, to prevail upon me to read a new book by the title of The Devil All the Time. The author, raved Publishers Weekly last year, “gives us over to despair and destitution and an undiluted evil.” That’s pretty much on the mark, and nicely alliterative, too.

The author is Donald Ray Pollock, a native of Knockemstiff, Ohio, an unincorporated and nearly unpopulated settlement that gave its name to his first book, a collection of stories. Knockemstiff is in southern Ohio; most of the events of The Devil All the Time take place in that same region and into West Virginia. In other words, we are in Appalachia, a proper noun that sometime around the Lyndon B. Johnson administration passed “Arkansas” as our chief national metonym for white poverty and depravity. (Arkansas enjoyed, if that is the word, a brief return to first place during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. You may recall the joke, “If a married couple in Arkansas get a divorce, are they still brother and sister?”) When we of the so-called cognitive elite need somebody to look down on, this is where we look.

The main activities, almost the only activities, of the characters in this book are sex and murder, with drinking and religiosity running a close third and fourth. Much of the book records the travels of an indolent fellow who picks up hitchhikers, lures them into sexual relations with his complaisant wife, photographs them in flagrante, and then shoots them. Then there is the preacher who preys upon young girls, and the itinerant who alternates between revival preaching and the circus, aided by his crippled pedophile friend, and the tormented husband who tries to save his wife from cancer by pouring blood over a “prayer log” surrounded by crucified road kill.

You get the picture. The reviews are not wrong: This is all set down with great skill. You are repelled, but the frisson of watching the lower orders misbehave is addictive, and you keep reading. I did. After finally putting the book down, I needed a radical superiostomy. I picked up my old copy of The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright.

What a difference a century makes in the portrayal of country folk!

Chances are good that you do not recognize that name. Wright was the best-selling American author of the first quarter of the 20th century. Some years before his death in 1944, Wright’s publisher did some arithmetic and found that The Shepherd of the Hills (1907) and his other most popular novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), had each sold over 2 million copies. This at a time when the population of the country was less than a third its present size, and the reading public was an even smaller fraction. (Both were made into movies, too, The Shepherd four times.)

The Shepherd of the Hills tells of a man of aristocratic background, fine education, and high culture whose fame as a clergyman in a fashionable Chicago church cannot help him deal with personal tragedy. He flees to the Ozark hills of southwestern Missouri, and there finds solace in the beauty and grandeur of nature and the friendship of the simple, kindly, upright people of the area. Like all of Wright’s books, it is unrelentingly sentimental and more than a little melodramatic.

Wright himself made no bones about his writing. “I have never in my work looked toward a place in literature,” he wrote in the autobiographical To My Sons, “But I have hoped for some small part in the life of the people for whom I have written.” Wright himself, with next to no formal training, had served churches in that same part of Missouri (and later in Kansas and California), and he admitted that his books were but thinly veiled sermons. But they were sermons inspired by the lives and ways of people he genuinely admired.

The Shepherd of the Hills also turns upon a young couple, Sammy Lane and Grant Matthews (known as Young Matt), who are described in ecstatic terms as perfect physical specimens, tall, strong, and graceful: “Two splendid creatures they were—masterpieces of the Creator’s handiwork.” Their spiritual and moral natures match their outward appearance. The tension in the book, to the extent that there is any, lies in their separate paths to fulfilling what is obvious to everyone else from the beginning, that theirs is almost literally a match made in Heaven.

There is a preacher in this book, too, though he appears only infrequently to deliver some folksy apothegm, such as “If a feller don’t fuss about what he knows for sure, the things he don’t know ain’t apt to bother him none.” No, I can’t figure that out, either, but I’m confident it’s wise.

You are repelled, but the frisson of watching the lower orders misbehave is addictive, and you keep reading.

What a difference a century makes in the portrayal of country folk! Of course, it was a century during which America’s rural population fell precipitously. The Census of 1910 was the last in which the rural population was greater than the urban. Rural people have become rare—they now account for about 17 percent of the total—and more than that, they have become oddities. Not many of us know any of them. For so many of us, the countryside, especially if it is well forested, is where social deviance goes to let its hair down. And the stories we hear! Man Bites Dog doesn’t faze us anymore, sophisticates that we are, but Man Shoots Dog, Hangs It on Cross, Prays to Cure Wife’s Cancer is a knockemstiff bit for a novel. What goes on down in them hollers is fascinatin’ stuff.

Toward the end of The Shepherd of the Hills, the title character confides to a chance visitor from the great world beyond the hills:

“Before many years a railroad will find its way yonder. Then many will come, and the beautiful hills that have been my strength and peace will become the haunt of careless idlers and a place of revelry. I am glad that I shall not be here.”

Poor shepherd! And poor Wright! The prophecy came all too true. Nowadays we call it Branson (about eleven miles, as the buzzard flies, from the Arkansas line), where folks crowd in to be entertained by Andy Williams and Yakov Smirnoff and revel in the Ozarkiness of it all.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to American.com. He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “Rule Britannica,” “The Problem with Bambi-nomics,” “Et in Arcade Ego,” and “Bringing Mr. Smith to Washington.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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