Nov 182014
 

BenedictPinckney Benedict via artoftherural.org

Here’s a lively book you all ought to read. I reviewed it in 1992 for The Chicago Tribune, which at the time had a wonderful weekly book section and sponsored the annual Nelson Algren Short Story Award. Again, this is one of those Lazarus texts, not quite dead and gone but hibernating on a hard drive. Some aren’t worth keeping, but others, like this one, serve at the least to remind me of good books that I once carefully read. You’ll have to pardon the anachronisms. Pinckney Benedict can no longer be described as a young writer. And Cormac McCarthy is much better known that he was then.

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The Wrecking Yard
by Pinckney Benedict
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

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Pinckney Benedict is a young writer who hails from the hills of West Virginia and is blessed with a natural gift of southern Bible-belt oratory, part-lyric and part-hammer-and-tongs sermon. He doesn’t write like one of those precious minimalist or K-Mart realist northerners — his stories rise in the heart of a non-existent, mythic America, a no-time and no-place of elemental characters and pure narrative.

At his best, he reads like a cross between Barry Hannah (at his best) and the great, though lesser known, Cormac McCarthy of, say, Blood Meridian or Outer Dark. All three are inheritors of the southern (Faulknerian) tradition of violence and bombast. All three work a vein of exaggeration and hyperbole that is a kind of pure macho poetry.

The Wrecking Yard, Benedict’s second story collection (his first included “The Sutton Pie Safe” which won him the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award), runs the gamut from a Hemingway homage set in Nicaragua to a tale in the form of a radio play about a sideshow freak who was once struck by lightning and kills her lovers by electrocution.

The aesthetic keystone of The Wrecking Yard is “Washman,” a long story about a crippled hunchback killer, a limping evil, who shoots down a man in a gunfight over a mule, steals his girl (previously stolen from someone else) and leads a posse of upright citizens to a strange and terrible fate.

Of the twelve men who chase Washman into the mountain fastness where he lives, five die before they find him — two in avalanches, two to drowning and one to a diamondback rattlesnake. Five more die in a forest fire after they hang Washman, and the last two go mad.

The girl reaches the valley town with her hair burned off and lungs scorched, and pregnant, though she is not sure who the father is. “It will be a monster,” she says. “I’ll be mother to a monster that has eyes but no other part of a face. The flames sang it to me when their curtain passed over. They took my hair but they left me alive.”

This story takes place in a country of the imagination, not any place recognizably real. It is a peculiarly American country, a country invented by Ambrose Bierce and Bret Harte — white, poor, rural, southern and western, just at the edge of civilization (represented by women, sheriffs and doctors), just at the edge of the twentieth century (cars mix with mules and horses).

It is an eerie country of aimless, spectacular destruction, of gruesome and obsessive (or mechanical) evil. It is a place where fine speech goes for nought, where sly understatement and violence are the preferred modes of human intercourse, where retribution outweighs self-preservation, where insult and death are one, and where women are either absent or occasions for volcanic testosterone explosions.

In “Odom,” a pair of hillmen, father and son, clearing a piece of land for a new house, slowly become obsessed with blasting their parcel of forest to smithereens. The house, the original point of the exercise, is forgotten in an orgy of destruction, of pine and hemlock rocketing skywards, impelled by explosions of contraband dynamite.

“Farther away, the trees are down, but they have not been cut. They have been blasted wholesale from the ground, and the seared trunks lie at startling removes from the tangles of their roots. The trees are tumbled pell-mell over one another, two and even three deep, in a welter of sap and pith and broken wood. Odom has cleared enough space for a mansion, for the home of a giant.”

Odom even blows himself up in a premature blast — though this doesn’t stop him. At the end, bandaged head and hands, he is starting on the bedrock of his lot, hand-drilling a blast hole, father and son joined together, driving “a narrow shaft toward the hidden bitter heart of the rock.”

In Pinckney Benedict’s imaginary universe, life is a constant Coyote and Road Runner cartoon of despair. And Odom is a typical Benedict hero — obstinate to the point of stupidity, half-cartoon, half-god, huge, terrible and funny.

In “Bounty,” a gruesome shaggy dog story, a piece of poor white mountain trash named Candles drives into town with a rusty truckload of dead animals claiming a five-dollar-apiece wolf bounty from the sheriff. Candles drags the sheriff out to his truck and starts dropping the bodies of dogs on the street. It slowly dawns on the sheriff (and the reader), as the bodies accumulate, that these are family pets, mostly snagged in steel leghold traps — hounds, Alsatians, beagles.

“When Candles opened his mouth to speak, the sheriff held up a forestalling hand. ‘I don’t need to hear it,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure exactly what went on here.’ he said, indicating the back of the truck, ‘and I don’t believe I care to know.'”

Benedict’s style is laconic and deadpan. He gets comic mileage from the tension between the dry, matter-of-fact way he writes and the terrible and outlandish things he describes — from three men crawling up Washman’s hanging body to snap his neck to Odom’s blast-blackened fingers to the come-hitherish whispers of the deadly Electric Girl (whose boyfriends are all suicides).

It is not clear that Benedict has a message to get across. Rather, I think he has tapped into a deep lobe of the American psyche, a fragment of that lawless and ambiguous frontier that the nation has internalized and repressed but not forgotten.

He is weakest when he moves away from this vein of material, when he strays into the present or the real — that Hemingway homage or the title story in which a junkyard employee muses over the people who die in the cars he cannibalizes.

He is at his best when he ignores the contemporary Siren calls of sentimental realism and interpersonal sensitivity and simply lets the violence overflow, propelling his reader into a world of strange and macabre beauty.

—Douglas Glover (Published first in The Chicago Tribune Books, January, 1992)

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