If Olympia Vernon were a painter instead of a writer her nightmare landscapes–part Hieronymous Bosch, part Francis Bacon–would swarm with animal, vegetable, and human life, often distorted, and placed against desolate backdrops daubed with reds, greens, and ochres. (Imagine a dead bird, a breastless woman, a lizard, magnolias, a pig.) Through her use of such imagery the author conveys a sense of menace and estrangement.
In this, Vernon’s first novel, the township of Eden, Mississippi, placed close to the Louisiana border, serves as her canvas. Her characters are the impoverished, often exploited African Americans who live there, sometimes in fellowship, sometimes in contention, and always at the mercy of the white establishment.
Eden is no heaven on earth. It is haunted by its history–which in a larger sense is the history of the deep south–and by its dead and dying: the infirm women; the white girl raped and murdered years earlier; Uncle Sugar, castrated and jailed without cause; “Big Mama,” sexually assaulted by a white man, and the “retard,” Willy, murdered because he knows too much.
Into this bleak setting steps the 14-year-old African American narrator, Maddy Dangerfield, a reader of encyclopedias. On the surface she is meek and polite–all “yes ma’ams” and “no ma’ams”–but she smarts with indignation at the cruelty, suffering and injustice which surround her. (She cuts Hitler’s picture out of the encyclopedia because “he doesn’t deserve to be there.”) No goody two-shoes, she draws a naked woman with no breasts on the first page of Deuteronomy during Bible study–in Fire Engine Red lipstick, no less–which leads to temporary exile from her community. Her mother sends her away to Commitment Road to care for Aunt Pip, a former ‘good-time girl’ who has recently lost her breast to cancer.
In addition to Pip, scores of other eccentric, but for the most part believable, characters inhabit Maddy’s world: her mother, long-suffering Faye–obese, ill-used, and beholden to Jesus; Chevrolet, Maddy’s father, a one-armed, two-timing, illiterate drunk, and a charmer in spite of his faults. (He, too, is beholden to Jesus, the “other one,” a pool hall owner who is rumored to have killed a man.) And then there’s Maddy’s grandmother who hacked off Chevrolet’s arm and fed it to the pig after learning of Chevrolet’s adulterous affair with Aunt Pip.
Ultimately, however, Maddy, the first person narrator, is the pivot on which this story turns. In her attempt to make some sense of a universe gone mad, she resembles other meticulously drawn adolescent protagonists like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Frankie in Member of the Wedding. Unfortunately, Vernon’s character development is inconsistent. She demands too much of her readers when she asks us to believe plain-spoken Maddy, as precocious as she is, is capable of using such imagery as: “A man had been hung there, hung like the hog at Mr. Jolies, up high on a branch that cut the vein of life from his throat, the rope as sturdy and fixed as the penis of a rapist,” or “As I walked toward the house I smelled the soap from Fat’s inner thigh. It was a scent that rose into the air like a woman beaten after the curtains went down.”
Vernon’s writing is totally uninhibited. Her language is powerful and raw. She speaks of blood, milk, bodily discharge, excrement and bone. Although she claims not be a poet her lush, evocative prose defies that claim. In this passage: “[The Eucharist of water and clay] was different from the cracker of Communion. It tasted of rain. The rain that had fallen off the rooftops of every house in Pyke County had formed a red river of blood. You should have tasted this. I was eating the brightest star in the sky. I was swallowing the taste of God.”
At times Vernon writes as if she were reinventing the language. She uses startling, convoluted images and takes figurative leaps none but the most courageous–or the most foolhardy–would dare, as when she writes: “Fat’s eyes were solid; they were perfectly centered like the belly of a curved alphabet,” or “…the shingles lapped one on top of the other like sleeping men of old age.” To her credit, she is not afraid of breaking the rules.
Neither is Maddy. Maddy is afraid of growing up. (She shaves her head and plucks her pubes as if, by so doing, she will eradicate her sexuality.) But in the course of the book a sisterhood of women empowers and sustains her. They broaden her perception of the universe and lead us to believe she may, unlike most of the characters who surround her, emerge unscathed.
All but the strongest are crippled by circumstance and, to a lesser extent, by the choices they have made. (The whites, on the other hand, though corrupted by the system, remain impervious to its effect on them.) The moral degradation visited on the characters is, in turn, accompanied by physical losses as well: Chevrolet loses his arm, Uncle Sugar his penis, Big Mama her legs, Willy part of his brain, Pip her breast.
Vernon takes this idea one step further: In one particularly poignant scene Pip, who is listening to the distant sound of a chain saw, asks Maddy: “Hear that? That’s what it be like all the time. Cutting at you from the bone. Chipping away at you. Chipping away at you.” She is referring to loss. Maddy understands, much as her mother and grandmother before her. The “chipping away” erodes ones pride and a loss of pride is the greatest humiliation of all. She describes her mother crying outside the white owned store, begging for admittance during lunch hour. “All that begging didn’t do a damn bit of good. Because Grandma refused to take the medicine. The very thought of Mama embarrassing herself out there for a white man’s remedy made her even sicker. No matter who it was for. Grandma died a week later.”
Throughout, death and the threat of death hover in the air like smoke. Life is tenuous and filled with danger. We see it in the conflicts between whites and blacks, men and women, good and evil, and strong versus weak. (Human relationships are often predatory in nature: Jesus exploits Chevrolet; Chevrolet badgers Faye, Faye manipulates Maddy, and Maddy, at the very bottom of the pecking order, lashes out at the family pig.) Even the simplest things–a bird, the earth, a breast–exist in conflict to each other and possess a dual nature: A breast, for example, is both life force–when it suckles–and a negative one when it kills, as does the cancerous breast or the “sick titty,” as it is referred to in the book.
This exhilarating, although occasionally exhausting, novel is laden with symbolism–some of it obscure–and peppered with fresh language and unusual images that reflect Vernon’s obsessive vision of worldly sin, punishment and, occasionally, redemption. True, the symbolism sometimes threatens to bog the story down. But this book is a remarkable achievement for a writer just embarking on her career. Not yet thirty, Vernon holds an M.F.A. from Louisiana State University, along with a degree in criminal justice. During an interview with The Village Voice, Vernon dodged labels. “Please, don’t ever pin me down,” she told reporter Anya Kamenetz. But, when attempting to interpret her work, two labels are unavoidable: Southern Gothic and Magical Realism.
Like the Magical Realists she simultaneously deals with the mundane and the fabulous. She blends the real with the surreal and merges the mythical and the supernatural as do García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, and Toni Morrison. Because of her bold, highly lyrical use of language her writing is particularly reminiscent of Morrison’s.
But, at the same time, she also follows in the footsteps of such Southern Gothic predecessors as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty. Vernon, too, is an acute observer of southern culture, particularly in its more bizarre manifestations. These she subjects to merciless scrutiny, to irony and wit. And she is obsessed by the influence exerted by race, politics, and–most particularly–religion.
Religion, manifestations of faith, and mysticism are central to her writing, writing which sometimes resonates with the sound of scripture. She has told interviewers she merely records her characters’ capriciously dictated words. (When they speak she dares not interrupt and has been known to write compulsively for days.) If this is the case, she has been taking dictation from some eloquent spirits. (Probably angels.)
Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).