With the caveat that all stories in a collection are not created equal , there’s enough 100 proof goodstuff in here to make you forgive the few pieces that aren’t quite as strong.
Starting with one of the worst nightmares a father can imagine, the punishments in the opening story ‘If the Tree Falls’ devolve into what may be called the fathers’ nine circles of hell. After his daughter has knifed to death the boy who got her pregnant, the father hopes to shepherd his daughter to Canada to stay with kin in Toronto. But it doesn’t quite work out the way he planned. The heartbreaking denouement has the father wishing for the earlier days of his daughter’s ill-starred existence when it was mostly a simple operation still for a father to make things all, or even a little bit better for his little girl.
The wonderful ‘Where Water Fails’ begins on a sober note, but eschews the bad to worse progression of ‘If the Tree Falls,’ working its way to an almost ecstatic resolution. After decades of childlessness, Richard and Maggie are faced with pregnancy out of the blue. Before he knows the extent of it, Richard knows something is bothering his wife because of her habit of pounding meat when something is profoundly upsetting her. The story opens with Richard coming home after work, hearing Maggie making hay on her rattly kitchen countertops with that familiar metal meat hammer. Well, Richard cautiously approaches the situation, trying to figure out what he’s done this time to make her pound meat. When she spills the beans, Richard’s first impulse is the selfish one.
“What happened? Hell it don’t matter. I guess we need to go down to Elmira.” He thinks a moment. “Do regular doctors do them anymore?”
What follows is a fantastic scene where Maggie runs out the back door through the back forty, unlatching the rabbit hutch as she goes, leaving Richard to scramble to gather up the rabbits as he is keeping an angle on her and racing to catch up after her head start and diversionary tactic. The chase ends in a mostly dry creek bed where Maggie sits naked on a stone. When Richard tries to entreat her with conversation, she cuts to the chase.
“If you think it’s nothing. You come do it.” She strips stray branches from the stick in her hand and spreads her legs, offers the stick to him with one hand. It looks like a knitting needle. Richard can feel his breath come harder. “You come fucking do it.”
Richard, thankfully, doesn’t take the stick to his wife. Hearken back to the whole ‘ecstatic resolution’ deal and you’ve got yourself one outstanding story.
Another stand out in Mostly Redneck is “Of Dog and Man and Woman,” a hilarious and yet tragic story about a man trying to hang on to the past through the suffering of his dog, Shogun. Nic, the redneck saint of lost causes, suffers through a bad marriage all the while caring for the terminally miserable Shogun who is suffering from dysplasia-caused bowel impaction. After throwing his wife, Sheryl, out of the trailer, ass first into a snow bank and, afterward, recalling the time she hit him in the face with his prized trilobite for not paying attention to her grandmother during Sunday dinner, it occurs to Nic that things have got to change.
Her shaking grayed nose and calm brown eyes showed a light of panic for a moment. He put the barrel of Dicky’s .243 against her head and pulled the trigger, snapping her head down into the snow.
After putting Shogun out of her misery, Nic drives to his father-in-law’s convenience store with plans to torch it. With conviction fueled by hate, Nic prepares the inside of the store to be Shogun’s fiery sepulcher, but when it comes time to spark the fire Nic is stopped by love.
He thought of old Dicky with no store, and Nicholas knew he had loved Sheryl at some point. He wondered why she couldn’t scry what had happened to them, and he snapped the lighter shut, leaving Shogun behind, but with her heart in the coffee can under his left arm, close to his own heart.
The story ends like many of Barnes' do, with the idealized world bumping up against the real one and the protagonist’s vain attempt to reconcile the two. It’s a beautiful, funny and touching story which is reflective of so much of Barnes' work.
Mostly Redneck may be a big middle finger to a literary establishment that looks down upon the working poor who toil in the sun with their shirt sleeves on, or a sincere attempt to show that redneck is just another label that comes off easy as a band aid in the bath tub when you stop generalizing and get down to the business of man to man.
Whatever, both or neither it's pure-D satisfaction to read.
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