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Murders Most Foul

Serena

By Ron Rash
Ecco, 2008

Does the battle between North and South still rage on the fields of American literature? Are those damn Yankees still smashing the Southern idyll to smithereens? Should I, a Northerner through and through, take up my keyboard and venture into those placid hills? Even with the near-holy regard I have for the works of Twain, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, can my Yankee sensibilities carry any credibility when it comes to an assessment of a contemporary offering of Southern American fiction? Will I display my Northern ignorance, as did this “Briefly Noted” reviewer of Flannery O’Conner’s A Good Man is Hard to Find in the June 18, 1955 New Yorker?

The macabre air that hangs over Miss O’Connor’s stories, heightening their effect without concealing their lack of depth, is intensified by her particular use of the English spoken in the south and by her familiarity with Southern attitudes and Southern habits. … There is brutality in these stories, but since the brutes are as mindless as their victims, all we have, in the end, is a series of tales about creatures who collide and drown, or survive to float passively in the isolated sea of the author’s compassion, which accepts them without reflecting anything.

Ouch. Of course, in the kind of biting exchange between critic and author that’s too rarely seen these days, O’Connor put forth a retort in her 1960 essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:

When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

Okay. The gauntlet’s been down for a while, but I’ve got chutzpah. I’m picking it up and headin’ in.

Serena, the latest novel of South Carolina writer Ron Rash is described in a publisher’s website blurb as “There Will Be Blood meets Macbeth.” Shakespeare has just groaned and I’m hoping against hope Serena will lift its hem and reveal more traces of Faulkner than an overblown Daniel Day Lewis movie. Death, accidental or malicious, is common Rash terrain. His first novel, One Foot in Eden, begins with a sheriff on the trail of a missing man whom he’s convinced has been murdered. The trail goes cold and the murder sleeps for eighteen years before the truth is revealed, taking a few more casualties with it. Saints at the River begins with the accidental death of a young girl at the hands of a treacherous river current; against the protestations of locals, the parents try to retrieve her body and more lives are lost. In The World Made Straight, a coming-of-age tale, Rash saves the death for dessert when the teenage protagonist tries to rescue a drug-addicted damsel in distress from her captivity by the local pot-farmer; when the pursuit goes awry, bodies are stacked up next to “The End.”

Dead bodies strewn over the stories of Southern Gothic fiction is the rule rather than the exception. There’s Addie’s poor decaying body carted through the Mississippi countryside in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the Misfit that murders a vacationing family in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” to name but two of countless examples. But what of that heat that rots corpses and wilts tobacco? Or those dogwood trees that drip blossoms and the ever-present scent of magnolia? Critics are quick to affix the label Southern to any body of work that mentions cotton in the fields and biscuits on the dinner plates. One of the pleasures of Rash’s novels is that he avoids many of these clichés while remaining true to Southern fiction’s Gothic roots. For example, in One Foot in Eden, Rash turns a white oak tree into a graveyard when a murderer hides his victim in a tree for the buzzards to snack on:

I took Sam’s reign and walked with him out into the stand of yellow poplar, Holland’s body circling slow as it raised into the sky like a body caught in a suckhole below a waterfall. I looked at Holland dangling from that white oak and tried not to see it as a sign of my own future.

The rope spread Holland’s arms out. They was stiff now as fire-pokers and as he raised higher his arms looked like wings. I remembered Preacher Robertson reading from Revelation how on Judgment Day the dead would raise from earth and sea and fly to heaven and what a glorious sight that would be. But as I patted Sam’s flank and Holland lifted another few yards toward the sky, his face gouged by barbed wire, the hold in his chest boiling with bluebottle flies and yellow jackets, I reckoned a man might witness no more terrible sight than the dead resurrected.

Brutes, freaks, the grotesque – whatever words you use to describe the characters of Southern fiction, their diction and dark souls make them memorable in any line-up. O’Connor attributes this to the South being “Christ-haunted” and that these ghosts “cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.” According to O’Connor, what fuels the best stories, Southern or otherwise, is the pushing of a character’s development beyond the places determined by “psychic make-up” or “economic situations” and into the realm of the mysterious: “characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves – whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.” Rash’s Serena sets a cast of Southern freaks in the best O’Connor tradition into battle against Northern characters who are disappointingly predetermined and devoid of mystery. The freaks steal the show, yet I’m not sure that’s what Rash intended.

While the protagonists in Rash’s former novels are more American contemporary than Southern freak, his supporting casts always seem to include a hermit, a widow (part soothsayer, part witch), and old-timers gathered on the porch of a country store. Rash’s addition to the line-up is the environmentalist. Even as our murderer in One Foot in Eden is securing his victim to the branch of a tree, he looks downriver, notices a Carolina Power truck, and allows his environmental concerns to distract him from his guilty act with a flashback:

“Carolina Power’s going to cork this whole valley up and make them a lake,” Roy Whitmire had claimed last fall after the timber company sold out. If you ain’t got a houseboat you best find another place to live.”

“They can’t never run us out if we don’t sell,” Travis Alexander had said. “And there’s not a price they can offer that’ll buy out me and Daddy.”

Though the timing feels off for the expression of this sentiment, the corporation cast as the South’s twentieth-century carpetbagger lends another unique twist to Rash’s fiction. Let’s see what havoc the corporate devil reaps in the Southern landscape in Serena.

No surprise, then—death opens the first act of Serena. What is surprising is that our protagonists, George Pemberton and his wife Serena, arrive in Waynesville, a depression-era North Carolina logging town, from Boston. When the Yankees arrive they are greeted by a man armed with a knife who announces that Pemberton must do the right thing by his daughter. Serena steps center stage:

“You’re implying she’s carrying my husband’s child.”
“I ain’t implying nothing,” Harmon said.
“You’re a lucky man then,” Serena said to Harmon. “You’ll not find a better sire to breed her with. The size of her belly attests to that.”
Serena turned her gaze and words to the daughter.
“But that’s the only one you’ll have of his. I’m here now. Any other children he has will be with me.”

Serena and her melodramatic dialogue are more disturbing than Pemberton’s subsequent killing of Harmon; she’s more Harpy than human. She has married George in order to build a timber empire. She’s eager to shake the dust of Waynesville from her jodhpurs (God help us – couldn’t she wear a gown like Lady Macbeth and be done with it?) and go rape Brazil’s timberland. She just needs a few more investors.

Poor George is nothing but part pawn, part love-slave (eager to “cleave” to Serena during their next “coupling”); he pathetically does all she bids, even as she orchestrates the murders of his business partners, the sheriff, the local doctor, the foreman, and the list goes on, all in the name of building her empire. Whatever you do, don’t get too attached to any of the characters in this novel, because Serena will be riding in on her white Arabian horse with her henchman Galloway at her side and a bird of prey on her arm (which she sends forth to kill all rattlesnakes that threaten the slaves, I mean, loggers) to kill anyone who stands in her way. You can see George’s dire end coming from 350 pages away. By the time Serena packs her bags for Brazil there are nearly as many dead bodies as tree stumps in this North Carolina forest.

With the nasty bits done, it’s time to turn to this novel’s gems, of which there are a few to be found once you extract Serena’s story from the plot. Rash uses the novel’s depression-era setting to pit industrialists against the federal government; the industrialists are using cut-and-run logging with the help of cheap, desperate labor to rake in scarce dollars, while the government works to grab forestland on the cheap to establish Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Serena’s machinations and murders are part of this pitched battle and the narrative frequently cuts to scenes with a team of loggers led by a man named Snipes to keep readers abreast of the latest logging accidents, murders, rumors, and land-grab news. This team fills the narrative with desperately needed humor reminiscent of Hamlet’s gravediggers:

“I heard Harris has got him some geologists over there in Jackson trying to root up a big copper vein,” Steward said.
“Copper?” Henryson said. “I heard it was coal he was looking for.”
“I been hearing near everything from silver and gold to Noah’s ark to the Big Rock Candy Mountain,” Ross said.
“What do you think it is?” Stewart asked Snipes.
“Well,” Snipes said reflectively. “It could be a quest for one of the world’s immortal treasures, as many a rich man would wish to have his name recorded in the anus of history, but knowing Harris I’m not of a mind to think he’d care much about that.”

I must admit – I love these guys and their “anus of history” misstatements. If Serena had been narrated completely in their voice, this review would be of a completely different flavor.

Death and humor aside, Serena has its sentimental notes. Thankfully, they don’t drift in on the heavy scent of magnolia blossoms, but are honorably carried by the sixteen year-old Rachel Harmon, the unfortunate victim of Pemberton’s siring. With her father dead and Pemberton busy cleaving and coupling with Serena to produce a legitimate heir, Rachel is on her own; she proves to be as resourceful as Scarlet O’Hara without the pouting, whining, and melodrama:

Rachel removed her hand from a stone she knew would outlast her lifetime, and that meant it would outlast her grief. I’ve gotten him buried in Godly ground and I’ve burned the clothes he died in, Rachel told herself. I’ve signed the death certificate and now his grave stone’s up. I’ve done all I can do. As she told herself this, Rachel felt the grief inside grow so wide and deep it felt like a dark fathomless pool she’d never emerge from. Because there was nothing left to do now, nothing except endure it.

Despite all the death in this novel, Rachel is one of the very few characters permitted a moment to mourn the loss of another human being. Perhaps that is why I find her presence so welcome: she’s a reminder that even in the grimmest of fiction’s worlds, a heart can beat.

True to her vow to endure, Rachel bears Pemberton’s son, then gets up to sell the horse for cash and scrounge the nearby forest for ginseng she can sell. Thanks to her widowed neighbor, she finds free childcare and takes a job at the logging camp so she can put more food in her baby’s mouth. When Serena suffers her only setback, a late-pregnancy miscarriage that leaves her barren, she can no longer ignore Pemberton’s heir and sends her henchman Galloway to kill him and Rachel. In one of the novel’s rare acts of kindness, they escape thanks to the disparate characters who band together to help before being smote down by Serena.

We gather for a final chapter with my favorite logging crew to mourn the desolation left as the camp closes and the crew moves on to greener forests. After they cut the last tree, a thirty-foot hickory, “the valley and ridges resembled the skinned hide of some huge animal.” They make their way down the mountain and stop at a creek. When Stewart tastes the water he spits it out and says it tastes like mud:

“Used to be this creek held some of the sweetest water in these parts,” Ross said. “The chestnut trees that was up at the spring head give it a taste near sweet as honey.”
“Soon you won’t find one chestnut in these mountains,” Henryson noted, “and there’ll be nary a drop of water that sweet again.”

They briefly mention the sheriff who was killed, the girl and her child who got away, and Galloway’s defeat before returning to a longer discussion of trout, squirrels, bears and all the game that’s gone missing from the mountains. Then the men turn to McIntyre, who has been struck dumb since an encounter with a rattlesnake:

McIntyre raised his eyes and contemplated the wasteland strewn out before him where not a single living thing rose. The other men also looked out on what was in part their handiwork and grew silent. When McIntyre spoke his voice had no stridency, only a solemnity so profound and humble all grew attentive.
“I think this is what the end of the world will be like,” McIntyre said, and none among them raised his voice to disagree.

Truly, the spoliation of the land is a serious offense, but I’m left wondering about all those bodies in the town cemetery. Why weren’t they given a similar chapter of benediction? Here we have the ultimate failing of Serena: the narrative has judged the lives of men as of less value than the life of the land. “Yes, the soil of Tara is everything, Katie Scarlett!” rings in the ears. Losing their beloved soil to the North was a two-edged sword that cut both humility and bitterness into Southerners and their fiction. However, it’s the freaks who populate that soil, those “who meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves,” that are the grist of fiction and who should retain preeminence.

Gratuitous death is best left to Bond movies, video games, and stories of the apocalypse. The carnage of Serena’s characters is nothing short of a mass murder. As brutal as the deaths in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are, O’Connor shows the living and the dead the respect they deserve. In pursuit of a story to prove the evil of men and women who use and abuse the land, this novel is filled with more pawns than hearts. These are times that inspire great cynicism, but Serena is overwhelmed by its cynicism and becomes more sermon than story. And what of Serena as a piece of Southern fiction? Once again the Yankees invade the South and take no prisoners. The freaks I love, the lowly loggers and beatific Rachel, have been uprooted from their land and left to wander the barren wilderness as the vanquished. While the themes, the setting and most of its characters are Southern, death and its mysteries have been so abused that this Yankee can only find grotesque in the pejorative sense.

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Karen Vanuska lives in Half Moon Bay, CA. She was a finalist in American Literary Review’s Creative Nonfiction Contest. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.