Dead Cat Tales
April 11, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Bible Salesman, by Clyde Edgerton.
Reading next: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.
Here’s a koan for ya: is a story about a dead cat told in 2008 the same story it would’ve been in 1950?
I ask because there’s a story about a dead cat in The Bible Salesman — a very funny story, or more to the point, a tale, or a yarn. Without giving too much away, it involves the young protagonist, the Bible-selling naif Henry Dampier, finding himself trying to bury a soft-hearted housewife’s cat without her seeing the gruesome end to which it came. It is, at least so far, the most memorable scene in the book.
One way of answering this dead-cat-tale question is to ask whether you think a book set in 1950 but written in the 2000s could be the same as a book set in 1950 and written in 1950. I think most of us would agree that it could not: the context and the audience have changed drastically.
I wonder what this means for Southern humor, and for this book specifically. Comic writing is my favorite subgenre of the Southern tradition: Twain (if you consider him Southern), Portis, J. K. Toole, Flannery O’Connor, more recently Jack Pendarvis. Comedians of character, situation, and tone, usually in that order, with the exception of Pendarvis, who’s mostly a comedian of wordplay and surrealism.
(Wait: did I just call Flannery O’Connor a comic writer? I’m going to talk about O’Connor in my next post, since her works are the wellspring for this one — but yes, her works do have their own idiosyncratic humor.)
However, we associate the Southern school of humor most with the homespun yarn — the porch-rocking-chair story. The dead-cat story fits in very well in this tradition. I appreciate Edgerton maintaining that tradition in this book, which displays fascinating streaks of light (or at least light-seeming) comedy mingled with darker passages of religious and social thought. But I wonder if it is something of a museum piece — is it telling that the book is set in the 1930s to 1950s, and not in the present day? Is it possible for a work of dead-cat tales to be set in the present-day South? Is it, in a word, nostalgic?
I think there is something sweetly nostalgic about this book, although it’s too serious (and too well written) to dismiss it as nostalgia through and through. (Of course, there’s also something decidedly unsweet about works that look back and laugh on the Jim Crow era, although in Edgerton’s defense, it’s hardly fair to force every Southern book to be about racial discord, especially in books about the poor, white, rural South.) In interesting ways, the work discusses the encroachment of mass media, “progress,” and homogenized culture on the rural South — some of the same things that are very interesting undertones in O’Connor’s best stories. I wonder about “preservation” of regional culture in a region that has undergone such massive and ongoing development, has taken in so many new ethnic groups, has cultivated so many new industries.
Last week I attended the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, and many of these same thoughts went through my head. Everyone seems to be wondering whether there is a there in the South anymore: whether the designation “Southern” is still necessary to signify distinctive literary, popular, and social cultures. I guess I am just trying to figure out if there’s anything distinctively Southern in a writer like Pendarvis, with his gonzo narratives and sense of the humor of wacky narration — or whether “Southern” humor is now relegated to looking backward, to telling tales about a culture that used to be.