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Southern Gothic: A Sort of Reader's Guide
"When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures."
— Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer & His Country"
While driving my Prius down the Interstate in flyover country, I decided to make a rest stop and look for a P.F. Chang's for lunch. I had a long list of shopping items for my son Brandon, who was currently summering in the Hamptons, and my daughter Veronica, who was interning in Washington D.C. as a Senator's page — Northface, an iPad, Louis Vuitton — nothing but the best for my two overachievers! I was hoping to find a mall, a shopping center, even a Yankee Candle Company for heaven's sake, but the access road just lead mile after mile through kudzu and hissing cicadas. My GPS was not registering whatever road I was on, and I had effectively lost my way from the freeway.
"I swear," I said to myself, "this is going to make me late for my Skype session!"
I came upon a sign that read, "Store," and an arrow pointing down a gravel road. After some time passed, while driving slowly behind a three-legged dog, I came upon a small town, bereft of humanity, composed of only a few houses, a small library and what I took to be the "store." Out front sat two maniacal-looking geriatrics who stared at my approach with dead-shark eyes. One was armless and had no teeth. The other's left eye was a pale, lifeless color, save for a streak of blue veins reaching across its span and jutting off into a massive, fleshy scar running the length of his face. It looked like a dead tree, like Yggsdrasil itself had shriveled up and was planted on the face of a savage idiot.
"Careful Brent," I said to myself, "Don't upset these red-staters ... they can be quick to anger."
Speaking slowly and softly, I could only wonder what these two demented ancient rednecks could make of my environmentally-conscious car, or my low body fat percentage.
"Excuse ... me ... I ... don't ... know ... if ... you ... can ... understand ... me — "
" — Dressed like a New York banker," the armless one said.
"Mmmhmmm. Philadelphia lawyer," the pale eye said.
"Reminds me of that there Phillips kid. You know the widow's child. Died in the war."
"Died in the war."
"Come on little girl, act like you got some raisin, what's your business here?"
"I ... " I could hardly speak. Perhaps I could appeal to their ways and come across like 'one of them,' "I, well, now, y'all, where might I find a Wal-Mart, or a mall around these parts?"
Dead silence. The cicadas hummed viciously, ominously.
"No Wal-Mart around here."
"No mall neither."
"Are you with the government?"
"Me? Surely no! Oh my goodness. No — why, I'm an entrepreneur!"
"Engineer? The McCallister's boy was an engineer, but he's a dang meth dealer now."
I could see this was going nowhere.
"Alright, gentlemen, I'll bid thee adieu — er, I mean, see y'all later! Good on y'all! God bless!" I made for the Prius but to no avail —
"Now hold on there, young feller."
"Where's the hurry? If you're lost you could go to the library and ask directions."
"Your library appears to be closed." No doubt it was filled with issues of InTouch magazine and varieties of Bible translations ...
"I SAID YOUR LIBRARY IS CLOSED."
"So it is, so it is. The librarian there, he went crazy as Christmas."
"You might say the librarian's front porch light was burnt out."
"Folks say he ain't never coming round here again; some folks'll say he's coming back any day now!"
"He used to stand around outside in the sun, screaming about Jesus and puzzling evidence, the end is nigh, oh, conspiracies and so on."
"Read too many books, I reckon."
"Mmmhmmm. Thought he was in a book."
"Took a long dip in the ugly pond too. Crazy as an outhouse rat. Looked like he stepped out of a bandbox."
"Didn't have the sense God gave a gopher. Looked like death ate a cracker."
"If you'll excuse me, I really must — "
"Still, even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then ... "
"Oh Mighty, and Lord did he ever!"
"He'd go on about book learning."
"Always talking about books!"
"He said he loved The Violent Bear it Away. Said he knew the fanaticism down deep."
"Mmmhmm. And the wire Hazel Motes wraps around his chest was his own."
"In Wise Blood."
"The moral isolation of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter."
"Said he stayed in bed a week after The Ballad of the Sad Cafe."
"Faulkner set him down this road of homemade sin. As I Lay Dying."
"Joe R. Lansdale's stuff on the lighter side."
"Said he was like the fat boy in Confederacy of Dunces."
"Mmmhmm. 'Cept he was a skinny fool!"
"Intercession with something strange."
"Walker Percy. Lancelot."
"Suttree. Cormac McCarthy."
"James Dickey. Deliverance."
"Everything by Tennessee Williams!"
"He loved Baby Doll."
"To Kill a Mockingbird a big one."
"Don't know what he went on about, then he was off like a herd of pigs. High as a Georgia pine on books."
The sultry, austral air was thick and suffocating. I had profusely perspirated all over my J. Crew polo. The cicadas' demonic choral din in the distance continued unabated. Where was I? Some small dead textile mill town off the wrong Interstate exit?? A mad librarian? Southern Gothic?! What did it all mean??
"What are you two doing now?"
"We're awaiting his return."
Overhead, not a cloud was in the sky. The old library was choked and covered with kudzu like from some hellish fairy tale. I felt feverish and desperate. I knew I would not be returning home anytime soon. That somehow some convergence of fates had unspooled here in this place, at this very moment. I sat down in the third rocker next to the old men.
"Pass the iced tea."