Soil harkens back to the Southern gothic tradition
Some 30 years ago, I saw a disturbing film entitled “Koyaanisqatsi.” The title comes from a Hopi word meaning “unbalanced life.” Essentially, this film (which has no dialogue) consisted of disturbing images of our planet: abandoned cities, vistas of barren earth and surreal sequences in which our technology seemed out of control. When people appeared in the film, they seemed lonely, trapped and irrelevant.
In recent years, I have often remembered those bizarre images when I watched the nightly news (which is further evidence that “things are definitely unbalanced”).
This sense of a world in which natural laws seem out of control has become increasingly evident in recent Southern literature. We no longer have traditional stories in which our protagonists struggle against recognizable evil (alcohol, cancer, the Mafia, etc.). Suddenly, the antagonist is the Earth itself: indeed, it is as though a defiant Mother Nature has decided to rid herself of a deadly virus known as humanity. We have poisoned the ocean and destroyed the natural balance that once existed between the natural world and mankind. Perhaps it is time for us to go.
Writers like Cormac McCarthy, Mark Powell and Donald Woodrill have produced dark works that the critics described as “apocalyptic” and which depict humanity in full retreat before floods, cyclones, drought and holocausts.
Well, in the midst of all of this darkness and gloom, it is refreshing to find one gifted writer who prefers to view natural disasters with a dark, gothic humor. Jamie Kornegay, a gifted wordsmith (who operates a book store in Greenville, Mississippi) is blessed with a satirical eye and has crafted a tale that is intent on revealing a basic truth: it isn’t the flood, drought and cyclones that are wrecking lives in Madrid, Mississippi, it is the foolish, arrogant and pretentious behavior of his characters.
Let’s start with Jay Mitz, a new age farmer who sold his home and moved his wife, Sandy, and their son, Jacob to a tract of land which he had hoped to convert into a hydroponic utopia: tomatoes and corn thriving on chemicals. A year later, a drought followed by a flood has left Jay bankrupt. His wife has left him, taking his son and she has moved to town where she now teaches school. The experience has left Jay paranoid, and as he slogs through the mud of his farm, he becomes increasingly paranoid, imagining that his neighbors are spying on him and a half dozen government agencies have him “under surveillance.”
Without water, telephone or electricity, he ponders suicide. Then, when it seems that matters could not get worse ... they do. He finds a corpse washed up by the nearby river. Instead, of calling the police, Jay creates a wild fantasy in which the corpse has been “planted” and he is about to be arrested and charged with murder. What to do? Well, poor Jay decides to destroy the evidence. Cremate it. Grind it to dust.
Next comes Danny Shoals, a deputy in the Madrid Police Department, where he enjoys a privileged life since his uncle is the sheriff. Egotistical and vain, Danny wears tailored uniforms and spends a great deal of time tooling the dark roads of Bayard County in his souped-up 1976 Mustang (which he affectionalely calls “The Boss”)
However, Danny is not looking for criminals. Danny is looking for women; specifically young naive waitresses and secretaries that he can lure into the Mustang’s seductive interior. He also has a video camera and has become an adept peeping tom ... at least until a local beautician fresh from her shower spotted the little red light on his camera outside her bathroom window. Currently, he is planning the seduction of Sandy Mitz, the school teacher who is living with her son in an apartment in Madrid. Danny is sure she is lonely and much in need of his comfort.
Now about Sandy Mitz, who is the only character in Soil that is deserving of sympathy. Sandy is that rare thing, a dedicated teacher, and she still cares for her misguided husband, Jay. She is torn between cutting all ties with Jay, returning to the ruined farm and trying to salvage both her marriage and the wrecked farm. Her father is in intensive care at the local hospital and Sandy finds herself rushing from work to the hospital to her apartment with never enough time.
Is she aware of Danny Shoals, the young deputy who fancies himself a stud? Well, barely. She knows that he is out there in the dark, making countless trips by her apartment where he inquires about her welfare. Does Danny know about Sandy’s husband? Oh, yes, but considers him a “nut case” that spends much of his time wading through the muck along the river and burning refuse.
There you have it. These three characters and their interaction provide much of the excitement and humor for this gothic novel. There are other characters of course, including an eccentric senior citizen named Leavenger, who navigates the muddy fields and roads on crutches and spends much of his time searching for the “crazed psychopath” who killed his dog. That would be Jay Mitz, who doesn’t know that in this instance, his paranoia is justified.
There are other characters, all deftly defined, such as Desdemona, the African-American secretary in Sheriff Shoals’ office who observes the goings and comings of Danny Schoals with a cynical wit; there are escaped convicts and “missing persons” who appear and disappear with regularity, and a gaggle of teenagers who have converted the flooded fields into a mud race track. In addition, there are a number of non-human characters who appear with regularity, including a crocodile and a turkey buzzard.
This marvelous book resembles the Southern Gothic novels of the past such as the classic Eternal Fire by Calder Willingham. Deputy Danny Schoals appears to be a direct descendant of Willingham’s colorful seducer, a villain named Harry Diadem.
Soil by Jamie Kornegay. Simon & Schuster, 2015. 368 pages.