book“... and these signs shall follow those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poisons, it will not hurt them; they will place their hands on the sick and they will get well.”

Clem Barfield, the sheriff of Madison County, has been doing his job for 25 years, yet as he ruefully notes, he is still considered an outsider.

I found Booger at the Coffee Shop some 15 years ago – a tiny kitten with only one eye open, and although I could easily cover her with one hand, I couldn’t muffle the anguished MEEOOW! that she produced. It was like the cry of some tortured soul in hell, filled with equal parts of despair and terror. She had matted, multi-colored fur and when I cupped her to the shoulder of my jacket, she sank her tiny claws deep into the fabric and clung there like a small wad of velcro. Something had plucked her from a bleak and uncertain fate and she had no intention of letting go.

Although A Clash of Kings, the second in George R. R. Martin’s epic series, has a multitude of unforgettable characters, none is more fascinating than the grotesquely disfigured Sandor Clegane. Shortly before the final attack on King’s Landing, a great city that is under siege by four separate armies, Sandor has a conversation with Sansa Stark, a captive who owes her life to Sandor. Stung by Clegane’s mockery and contempt, Sansa says, “Does it give you joy to scare people?” Sandor’s reply could well serve a grim revelation and a daunting insight into medieval warfare and the dark heart of humanity:

“No, it gives me joy to kill people ... Killing is the sweetest thing there is ... You think it is all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing.” He laid his long sword against her neck, just under her ear. Sansa could feel the sharpness of the steel. “I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many that I have killed since then. High lords with old names, fat rich people dressed in velvet, knights puffed up like bladders with their honors, yes, and women and children too – they are all meat and I’m the butcher. Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold.” Sandor Clegane spat at her feet to show what he thought of that. “So long as I have this,” he said, lifting the sword from her throat.

This singular speech by a brutal, psychopathic killer summarizes the basic theme of A Clash of Kings. In spite of its mesmerizing splendor, George R. R. Martin’s fanciful world is often cruel and blood-splattered. This second book in the Songs of Ice and Fire series contains an excess of carnage. Thousands die in sea battles, drowned or burned by wildfire (a kind of medieval napalm). Countless lords and nobles are beheaded and thousands more fall before axes, swords and crossbows. Occasionally, the author pauses to note that the nameless dead – the “little folk” in ravaged villages and farms – they all die without  the glamor of armor or heraldry. The rape and slaughter of multitudes are merely a by-product of war ... the small or common folk die simply because they were “in the way” and they die without purpose of meaning.

Yet, this is a compelling tale and the multitudes of readers seem committed to following this amazingly varied cast to the final (Eighth) book.

Here is a general summary of Book Two: Ned Stark’s tragic death at the end of Book I changed the lives of his family, many of whom fled for their lives. Others such as Sansa, Ned’s daughter, are trapped in King’s Landing, a prisoner (and bride-to-be) of the vicious boy-king, Joffery Lannister. The 12-year-old Arya Stark escapes and  becomes a hapless servant to a half-dozen masters, but dreams of returning to Winterfell and her family. Ironically, Winterfell has been invaded and the fate of her brothers and sisters is unknown. Catelyn Stark, the widowed Queen of Ned Stark, joins her 15-year-old son, Robb who has named himself “King of the North” and vowed to avenge his father’s death. However, as he marches on King’s Landing, his father’s old enemies invade the Stark kingdom of Winterfell.

A Clash of Kings has an abundance of villains. Queen Cersei, although openly denounced as “incestuous and heartless,” manages to retain control of King’s Landing while plotting to rescue her lover/brother, Jaime Lannister, currently imprisoned by Catelyn Stark. A host of self-serving court officials murder, maim and betray at will. There is an offensive eunuch called “the whisperer” for his talent in relaying dangerous gossip and a finance officer named Littlefinger who has an almost supernatural ability to assassinate and betray with impunity. Invariably, his intrigue leads to his promotion to a higher office.

The most maligned character in A Clash of Kings is Tyrion Lannister, the  ugly dwarf who has been nick-named “The Imp.” Despised by everyone including his father and sister, Tyrion survives by his wits and frequently finds himself cast into hazardous situations ranging from riding with a murderous band of thieves to serving as the King’s Hand (the most powerful position in King’s Landing). However, by the end of Book 2, the Imp’s hopes are dashed again. An assassination attempt and a battle wound has rendered him disfigured and helpless and he has been imprisoned by his own family. What next?

The most mysterious figure in A Clash of Kings is Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons. The great battles raging in Westros are far removed from Daenerys’ “mission,” yet she believes that she is fated to reclaim her lost kingdom ... lost thousands of years ago, which is the Seven Kingdoms.

In an ancient time when dragons still ruled the skies, the Targaryen family ruled all of the known world. The heart of the Targaryen kingdom was the country recently ruled by Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark. Now, this “golden child” with a small band of devout followers is moving toward the coast of the Narrow Sea. Daenerys has a blind faith in the future. She will acquire ships and twenty thousand armed men, and they will accompany her to reclaim her lost kingdom. She will destroy “The Usurpers” and restore The House of Dragons. When Daenerys talks, people listen because she has something that attracts attention. She has three dragons. They are small, but they are growing larger every day.

Fledgling dragons are not the only bizarre creatures in A Clash of Kings. The world of the supernatural is growing stronger. A sorceress called “The Red Woman” appears in the court of Stannis Baratheon announcing a new religion – one that will sweep away all the gods, old and new. When Stannis accepts the Red Woman’s guidance and replaces his standards and flags with a new image: a heart within a radiant sun – a new destructive force is unleashed – a force that Stannis uses to destroy his enemies, including his own brother.

Finally, there is Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned Stark, who has abandoned Winterfell and traveled north to join the Black Brothers: an army of dedicated warriors who keep watch on the Wall – a 600-foot high boundary that separates the land of mankind from the sinister forces of “the Others” which, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, is beginning to move. With the coming of the Others, Jon and his comrades will fight what may be the “last battle.” Much of A Clash of Kings is filled with a sense of fatalism ... Winter is coming, a hundred-year-long winter that will change the world forever and render the dreams of the Starks, the Lannisters and even the Mother of Dragons meaningless.

Although this reviewer is tempted to continue reviewing Song of Ice and Fire through all eight books, he will not do so.  It is time to return to more conventional literature ... works like Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home.  Stay tuned.

Readers, be forewarned. If you willingly enter the fanciful world of George R. R. Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones, you may find yourself “enchanted” like some hapless knight in Arthurian legend. In other words, you will spend a significant part of your life, wandering enthralled through dark forests, frozen wastes and burning deserts — all inhabited by extraordinary creatures, mad kings and a host of doomed and deeply flawed characters, all vying for your attention. Can you afford the investment of time?

Dropping into the continent of Westros with its unstable weather, exotic flora and fauna and the medieval splendor of a land wrecked by seven warring kingdoms resembles being transported to an alien planet. Indeed, that may be the case since it quickly becomes obvious that Westros is not our Earth. Strange flowers bloom in well-tended gardens; terrifying creatures called direwolves and shadow cats move in the dark forest; and a mythical races, called the white-walkers and the “Others,” live in the vast darkness beyond a 600-foot-high wall of ice to the north.

Yet, this strange land has familiar qualities. The peasants spend considerable time in taverns, drinking beer and consuming soups that contain commonplace vegetables like cabbage, okra, pumpkin and tomatoes. The nobility drink rare wines and feast on steak and venison much like the royal courts of France and England during medieval times. In effect, this exotic world blends the pageantry of a 15th century court; the sultry eroticism of Arabian Nights and the ancient, pre-Arthurian mythology of the Mabinogion with a marvelous wrapping of magic and fantasy — all woven into a unique, blood-stained tapestry. In other words, Songs of Ice and Fire is the folklore and ancient tales of Planet Earth “enhanced” by George R. R. Martin’s imagination.

Like the ancient tales of England and Scotland, Westros contains the ruins of an ancient civilization called the “Age of Heroes.” However, the broken columns and abandoned cities of Westros are thousands of years old and the old myths speak of fanciful creatures: children of the forest, the walking dead and dragons who blended their blood with that of ancient kings. In addition, ominous and prophetic tales talk of the coming of a hundred-year winter which will destroy most of the world. In the kingdom of Winterfell, an oft-repeated mantra is “Winter is Coming.” When animals and people begin to migrate south and half-mythical birds called “snow snipes” appear in growing numbers, the kingdoms of Westros begin to hoard supplies and watch the sky with anxiety.

This sense of impending doom serves as a backdrop for a half-dozen plots, each of which has the complexity of a Shakespearean tragedy. The governing House of Stark in Winterfell (a northern city) has strong traditional ties with the House of Baratheon located in the southern city, Kings Landing. In addition, Lord Eddard Stark, acquires the title, “The King’s Hand,” which empowers him to act on behalf of King Richard Baratheon. Since the King has a weakness for hunting, drinking and sleeping with whores, Eddard spends much of his time in King’s Landing conducting “affairs of state” and council meetings. During this period, Eddard learns that Queen Cersei (House Lannister) is involved in a secret plot to make the heirs to the throne her children, who are all products of an incestuous affair with her brother Jaime Lannister.

Gradually, Eddard learns that King Baratheon’s court is totally corrupt and the plotting and intrigue extends to all of the Seven Kingdoms — all of which have governing families that have their own agendas. Before Eddard can alert King Richard of his wife’s plot, he finds himself imprisoned and branded a traitor to the throne. Among other ill-fated members of the Stark family are Eddard’s wife, Lady Catelyn (House Tully) and the entire family.

In time, the intricate web of treachery and deceit brings ruin and/or imprisonment to most of the Starks: The two daughters, Sansa and Arya, are trapped in King’s Landing. (Sansa is betrowed to the vicious and unstable Prince Joffrey). Seven-year-old Brandon stumbles on the incestuous Queen and her brother and is thrown from a lofty bedroom window — a fall that leaves him paralyzed and suffering from amnesia.

When 14-year-old Robb learns that his father has been declared a traitor, he raises an army and with Lady Catelyn’s assistance marches on King’s Landing. Eddward’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow abandons Winterfell and joins the Black Brothers, an army of highly disciplined soldiers who are sworn to defend Winterfell against the forces of evil that live beyond the northern Wall. As the Starks struggle to survive in the cauldron of intrigue, other kingdoms begin to take actions that are designed to destroy or sustain Winterfell and King’s Landing.  Each decisive action (assassinations, covert invasions, secret treaties) resemble a deadly chess game.

No review of A Game of Thrones would be complete without the mention of Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf who is called “The Imp,” and the exotic Princess Daenerys and her brother, Viserys, who claim to be descendants of the ancient House Targaryens called themselves “Blood of the Dragon.” Among the cast of characters, Tyrion is the ultimate outsider — a man who compensates for his physical deformities by his wit and a shrewd ability to understand the motives of others, especially his arrogant and treacherous brother, Jamie. However, Princess Daenerys harbors a secret desire for vengeance which involves “waking the dragons” and marching on kingdoms of Winterfell and King’s Landing ... her ancient enemies.

These complexities of plot may be this bloody saga’s most bewildering characteristic. Readers may find themselves re-reading chapters in order to keep track of kingdoms and blood feuds. However, George R. R. Martin’s powerful and beautifully crafted narrative holds our attention. While it may be difficult to summarize the tangled threads of intrigue which involve several hundred characters, this fantasy shimmers with memorable scenes and characters. For example, the presence of the dire-wolves, six pups raised by the Stark children, acquire an eerie presence as they pad silently behind their charges, guarding them against ever-present threat. The descriptions of feasts, jousts, warfare, and a good bit of sweaty sex is done with graphic detail.  The painfully detailed descriptions of clothing and armor is especially noteworthy.

A Game of Thrones has a number of strong themes that focus on women in crisis; the presence of a religion thought to be destroyed, but which still exists in the natural world where “the old gods and the new” are dormant, but vitally alive.

A final comment on the HBO series based on Game of Thrones. It is magnificent. Perfectly cast and stunningly photographed, this series is undoubtedly the best program on current television.  As for that oft-repeated concern, “Is it as good as the book?”.... Yes, it is. In fact, in some instances, it surpasses the book. And this is just the beginning! There are eight books to go.

(Gary Carden can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A Game of Thrones, Book One by George R. R. Martin. Bantam Books, 1997. 726 pages.

Like a growing number of FX addicts, I have become a devoted fan of “Justified” (Timothy Olyphant and Sylva’s own Nick Searcy) that airs each Tuesday night at 10 p.m. This fast-moving, smart-talking, funny and violent show represents the culmination (or harmonious convergence) of several remarkable talents: a short story entitled “Fire in the Hole” by Elmore Leonard (which became the basis for the FX series, “Justified”) and the marvelous nuanced acting of Oliphant, who stepped into the custom-made boots of U. S. Marshall Raylan Givens like he was born to play this part.

“Justified” is that rare thing, the merging of Elmore Leonard’s talent for writing dialogue that sizzles and pops like frying bacon, and Olyphant’s uncanny talent for becoming a Kentucky-bred Federal agent who has acquired a reputation for being a little too quick to provoke “violent confrontations.”

Raylan is that rare thing, a novel spawned by a successful television show that is based on an original short story by the same author. Of course, most readers know about this “crime/fiction” writer who has a legendary talent for writing screenplays: Consider this partial list: Valdez is Coming; Hombre; The Moonshine Wars; The Bounty Hunters; Gold Coast; Kill Shot. Leonard’s versatility is astonishing. Frequently, his dialogue is filled with double entendres and “inside jokes”.... like when a character in an episode of of “Justified” picks up the phone during a tension-filled moments, hangs up and turns to tell a crowd of well-armed listeners, “Valdez is Coming.”

Essentially, Elmore Leonard is so pleased with the success of “Justified,” he has decided to write a new novel based on the further adventures of U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. Raylan vibrates with energy, humor and tension. Take for example the episode that begins with Raylan discovering Angel Arena, a major drug dealer, floating in a hotel bathtub filled with blood, water and ice. Angel’s kidney’s have been removed and someone has closed the incision with a stapler.

Angel survives and the following day, he receives a ransom note that offers to return his kidney’s for $100,000. Before long, Raylan is caught up in one of the most bizarre cases of his career and the personalities are memorable: Dickie and Coover Crowe, two pot-head brothers (and old acquaintances of Raylan’s) who act as “procurers” for an Afro-American nurse named Layla and her con-artist lover, Cuba (pronounced Coo-ba) Franks. Since Layla has “assisted” in hundreds of kidney transplants at Harlan County’s stylish medical center, she is admirably qualified to remove the kidneys of wealthy victims. Coba and Layla are well on their way to becoming millionaires when Raylan shows up and the plot becomes both complicated and kinky.

Then there is Delroy Lewis, a drug-dealing gambler who has developed a profitable business involving topless dancers. The girls are all addicts who have been trained to rob banks and deliver the stolen funds to Delroy. The money rolls in and when any of the dancers become incompetent, Delroy simply shoots them and leaves their bodies in a vacant lot. They are easy to replace.

Ah, but there is one problem. Delroy has a serious grudge against Raylan Givens and fantasizes about engaging in a western style shootout. Since Delroy has a penchant for cross-dressing, he decides to set a trap in a gambling saloon where he will be disguised as a “statuesque beauty with a platinum wig” with a Smith .357 in his purse. The resulting “gunfight” manages to be tense, terrifying and hilarious.

Raylan is packed with characters that are vitally alive and some of them have become regulars on “Justified.” There is Boyd Crowder, a reluctant employee at the M-T Mining Company which is in the process of destroying the quality of life in Harlan County. As “security officer” for the mining company, Boyd has discovered that his duties include intimidation, bribery and accessory to murder. Carol Conlan, a brutal coal mine executive who has turned into a “Justified” regular, finally gets her due in Harlan when she is shotgunned by a miner’s widow in the local nursing home.

Of course, there is a priceless episode involed in Carol’s demise, but that is possibly this novel’s singular flaw. It possesses an intricate and tangled narrative with events so intertwined, it is nearly impossible to unravel one tale without releasing a half-dozen others. In order to put Carol Conlan’s personality and death in proper perspective, it is necessary to tell the story of Otis Culpepper, the old miner who has become an “inconvenience” to the M-T Mining Company — a problem that Conlan solved by simply shooting the old man. In addition, there is the story of Pervis Crowe, a rugged, old survivalist who sells and/or controls every illegal activity in Harlan County. In addition, there are a dozen marvelous characters who make a brief appearance and then vanish through the nearest exit .... like Jackie Nevada, a college girl/professional gambler who impresses Raylan by winning a million dollars.

Finally, Raylan acquires a pardner in this novel and hopefully, he is going to be around for a long time. He is a former white supremacist with swastika tats named Bill Nichols. Somewhere in his experiments with violence, Bill “saw the light” and became an uncompromising agent for justice.  Raylan and Bill look and act like a matched set, and hopefully he will return often, giving us some fantastic dialogue as these two U. S. Marshalls compare notes on topics like divorce, moonshine, young women and killing people.

Raylan by Elmore Leonard. HarperCollins, 2012. 263 pages.

I remember, I remember

The house where I was born,

The little window where the sun

Came peeping in at morn;

He never came a wink too soon

Nor brought too long a day;

But now, I often wish the night

Had borne my breath away.

—Thomas Hood

 

This novel significantly affected this reviewer simply because I gradually developed a tremendous empathy with the protagonist, a woman who is close to the end of her life and spends much of her time “summing up.”

Could she have done better? Now, alone except for her aging dog, Rufus, she sits staring through her living room window, watching the familiar contours of her neighborhood vanish beneath the attack of the municipal bulldozers and jack hammers. The construction of a new water/sewer system has rendered her beloved neighborhood unrecognizable, filling the air with noise and dust.

All of her old friends are either dead or moved away and her life has been reduced to boring routines: washing the dishes, paying the bills, checking the mail. Emily needs a change.

When  Arlene, her best (and only) friend keels over at the Eat ‘n Park, “two for one” breakfast buffet, Emily’s life becomes even more constricted.

Having become dependent on Arlene to drive her to the library, the grocery store and church, Emily is now forced to rely on taxis — an alternative that she soon abandons as both frustrating and expensive. Visiting Arlene in the hospital, Emily is relieved to learn that her friend had merely fainted because of low blood sugar (although she now has some dramatic stitches on her forehead).

Emily ponders her predicament. Arlene’s poor vision makes her a dangerous driver; also Emily finds that there are places that she wants to go alone: her husband’s grave, for example. Against the advice of family and friends, she buys a new car (a Subaru) and ventures out into the world again. 

Although Emily, Alone is essentially a warm, and often humorous account of an elderly woman’s rational acceptance of her own mortality, Emily’s daily life has occasional moments that are heartbreaking and poignant. Certainly, she finds much to enjoy in life: the classical music station on her radio that continues to play her favorite Bach and Vivaldi; her garden and the annual return of flowers which she tends with a zealot’s devotion.

Then, there are the gratifying annual events: the spring flower show which she and Arlene attend each year; the museum, and a Van Goth exhibit; the new symphonic season with a Mozart program.

However, in counterpoint to this annual ritual, there are the “family events” — Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners; the yearly trip to a cabin called “Chautauqua” and the visits of children and grandchildren. All of these events are fraught with frustration and disappointments, such as an alienated daughter with a drinking problem; sons who seem reluctant to return home since they are married and have conflicting obligations...and the grandchildren who are bored by the whole affair.

Beneath it all runs Emily’s rueful acceptance that each event may be “the last time” she will see the people that she loves.

There is also this. As the seasons change, as winter gives way to spring (“This may be the last spring” thinks Emily), a goodly portion of Emily’s thoughts are colored by guilt, regret and anxiety. She remembers the thoughtless and cruel comments that she made to her own mother and finds contained in her own daughter’s arrogant and bitter pronouncements the same anger that had once been her own.

Like all mothers who find themselves alone, there are days when Emily has little to do except revisit old grievances and imagined slights from her family. The receiving and sending of Christmas cards becomes a daunting activity in which Emily equates a late (or never sent) card as indicative of a relative’s indifference.

Funerals of old friends acquire profound significance in terms of flowers, musical selections and seating. Emily carefully plans her own service. The writing of her will and the distribution of her estate becomes a topic for discussion with her children, who (thinks Emily) respond with indifference. Like most mothers, Emily suffers all of these imagined insults with stoic silence....until she is safely at home.

No doubt, many readers will find Emily to be an all-too-familiar figure, but they are also likely to admire her, as she drives her new car to destinations she had once thought beyond her reach. Her relationship with the delightful Rusty, her decrepit dog, is both tender and comical, since Emily keeps up a colorful monologue directed at the failing canine, filled with comical nick-names.

He is Doo-fus when he is awkward and Tubby when he gains weight. His owner worries that she may out live him, but dotes on him as though he were her child. She sympathizes with him regarding his bouts of flatulence, but admits that she has similar failings herself. Each day, when a rogue squirrel comes to raid the bird feeder, Emily opens the back door and urges Rusty to attack. “Sic ‘em, Rusty.” The squirrel is gone before Rusty gets to the feeder, but Emily always assures him, “You almost got him, that time!”

Her relationship with her “once-each-week” housekeeper, Betty, is often comical as they compare notes on food, relatives, dieting and politics. However, the best exchanges are between Emily and Arlene, who are two old friends that are totally mismatched. Arlene is a retired teacher, who loves soap operas and often distresses Emily with her love of pop music and bad art. Yet the two are devoted and familiar figures in their town, dining weekly at the Eat ‘n Park and shopping for blueberry muffins at Giant Eagle. Regardless of who is the chauffeur, they attend church, funerals and art shows together.

As Emily enjoys her new car, she seems to be gathering nerve for “a long drive.” In time, we learn that the destination is Emily’s hometown, Kersey, Penn., a place she had once vowed she would never see again. Perhaps it is the “summing up” of her life that prompts Emily to finally pack a pair of cosmos (potted flowers) into the Subaru and set out for a backwater town and an old cemetery where she will spend hours digging the dry baked dirt at her parent’s tombstones. It was something that needed to be done.

Perhaps it is only with this final act of acknowledging her origins, that Emily can return home to sit quietly in a window above her garden, with a glass of wine and the music of Albinoni and Vivaldi playing softly. Her obligations and duties have all been fulfilled now. Nothing to do now but wait.

Emily, Alone by Stewart O’nan. Penguin Books, 2011. 255 pages.

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

— “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake

 

The stanza above, from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” serves as an apt introduction to Robert Morgan’s latest collection of poetry. Here, the reader will find a catalog of vivid images from the natural world: a spider’s web spangled with dew drops; mountain pools pierced by sun beams; a wind-blown thistle and the husk of a jar fly — all transformed by Morgan’s elegant words — words which have the power to render these images “numinous” (possessing a religious or spiritual quality).

In conjunction with Morgan’s skill in capturing vibrant images is his ability to describe those images with magical language. For example, the title of this collection, Terroir, is a word (French in origin) used to denote the special characteristics that geography, geology and climate bestow upon crops and/or produce. Just as the quality of a vintage wine may be determined by the combined effects of a particular region’s rivers, the mineral content of the soil and the length of the growing season, Morgan suggests a parallel in the natural world of Appalachia. In effect, the inhabitants of the coves and ridges of the Southern Highlands are what they are because of the same factors. We (and all living things) are molded and shaped by the same forces that might render/produce something original ... a rare wine with its unique taste or a mountain family, surviving against all odds and steeped in tradition.

Terroir contains a number of recurring themes: rituals, folk beliefs, superstitions and the subtle and orderly design of the natural world.

“October Crossing” celebrates the annual orange and black, woolly worm migration which, in mountain folklore will determine how hard the winter will be. However, in Morgan’s imaginative description, this events merges with classical mythology. The woolly worms migration must cross a highway “like a hard Styx or Jordan” to reach the refuge of the woods. In “Apple Howling,” there is a comparison of the Anglo-Saxon “come forth” ritual in apple orchards (beseeching the trees to produce a generous crop), to the “come, butter, come” incantations that my own grandmother chanted to transform clabbered milk to butter. “Singing to the Corn” recounts yet another ritual to encourage fertility and “Immune” celebrates an old superstition about going barefoot in the first snowfall as a means of preventing winter ailments.

Beneath all of these poems, like a quiet, but ever-present stream, is a series of affirmative verses regarding Nature’s “silent design.” “Loaves and Fishes” celebrates the slow decay of a deer on the highway, noting the process by which every bit of flesh  “is sorted, hauled/ away by scavenging coyotes,/ by maggots, worms, bacteria, /each bite sent to its proper place/ to feed the needy multitudes.” “Translation” finds a striking example of rebirth in the way that trees die “and lean into the arms/ of neighbors” where they gradually disintegrate and “... eed the the roots/ of soaring youth.”

There are also frequent allusions to Nature’s tendency to “mimic” cosmic design. For example, the sprouts of potatoes struggling toward the light in “Homesickness” resembles genetic memory struggling “across the gulf of history.” In another poem, In “Country of the Sun,” Morgan finds a poignant parallel in the struggles of a neighbor stricken with an eye cancer who moves down a road in the sunlight of a spring day with the same yearning towards the light. In “The Big One,” the explosion of seeds from a winter thistle resembles that outward rush of matter that created the universe. Again, in “Lone Eagle,” the fall of snow flakes in a pine forest suggests “a ticker tape parade” witnessed by “snow bird, mouse and solo wren.” The spiraling flight of sulfur butterflies in “Convocation,” suggest the “swing and rise” of planets and “far quasar.” 

Many of Morgan’s most affecting poems describe an embattled natural world where corrupting forces contaminate beauty. “Brownfield” describes a field filled with “industrial swill,” tatters of asbestos and rusting nails, styrofoam, grease and garbage bags; yet even here, Nature struggles stubbornly to reassert itself with a thriving patch of ironweed. In “Expulsion” Morgan compares humanity’s withdrawal from polluted tracts of land to the loss of Eden. We are forced to leave because our eyes are “swollen red” by a corrupting dust. Yet, even here, the stubborn persistence of “Poison Oak” demonstrates Nature’s survival instinct “that will cross a meadow” to claim a spot at the base of a tree.

My favorite poem in this collection is “Go Gentle,” a reasoned rebuff to the poet, Dylan Thomas who is remembered for his advice to the elderly: “rage against the dying of the light.” For Morgan, such a recommendation seems a bit melodramaic. After witnessing the death of relatives and friends, Morgan concludes that both those who watch and those who die “will plead for nothing but the right/ and gentle passage of the night.” There seems little point in delivering a death rant.

This is a gratifying collection.  Although Robert Morgan is attracting national attention for his novels and historic biographies, I feel that his greatest strength lies in his poetry.

Terroir by Robert Morgan. Penguin Books, 2011. 95 pages.

This novel contains an endorsement from the late William Gay that tweaked my interest. I immediately bought the book. Gay says, “The Devil All the Time hits you like a telegram from Hell slid under your door at three o’clock in the morning.” Another review concluded that reading Pollock’s novel was like “reading Flannery O”Conner without the Catholicism.” What we have here, then, is the existential landscape of the “Southern Gothic” joined with the mindless brutality of “Natural Born Killers.” If you are a reader who looks for novels that are spiritually uplifting and are designed to reflect hope and redemptive themes, then you should avoid The Devil All the Time as if its pages were impregnated with the Ebola virus.

Pollock’s characters are often terrifying; other times, they possess a pathetic innocence ... the kind that renders them hapless victims. Here are some of his most arresting and memorable characters: The duo, Brother Roy Lafferty and Brother Theodore Daniels, spread the word of God in the Coal Creek Holiness Church Sanctified in Meade, Ohio (circa l950s). The Rev. Roy keeps the attention of his audience by throwing handfuls of poisonous spiders into the congregation.  Brother Theodore, confined to a wheelchair since he swallowed a dose of strychnine in one of the Rev’s Roy’s revivals, plays the guitar. Alarmed by a steady decrease in his congregation, the Rev. Roy decides to promote himself with a miracle ... raising the dead. Brother Theodore suggests that Roy should kill his new wife and “bring her back.” The Rev. Roy does just that ... or tries. The religious duo buries the dead girl and depart ... allegedly for Mexico.

Willard Russell, a psychologically scarred WWII veteran, returns to Meade after the war, marries and struggles to make a life for his wife and son, Arvin. When his wife gets cancer, Willard launches an impassioned appeal to God to save his wife. At first he conducts marathon praying sessions at a “prayer log” in the woods, but gradually he begins to bring sacrifices to the prayer log — rabbits, squirrels, butchered hunting dogs ... all of which he hangs on wooden crosses or from the branches of trees. When his wife’s condition grows worse, he decides to bring a human sacrifice to his prayer log and murders his landlord, an unpleasant, greedy lawyer (who has offered to give Willard his rented shack if Willard will kill the lawyer’s unfaithful wife and her lover).

When his wife dies, the distraught Willard decides to make the ultimate sacrifice, cuts his own throat and leaves behind a 9-year-old, Arvin, who becomes the central character in The Devil All the Time. When Arvin leads the local sheriff, Lee Bodecker, to the prayer log and his father’s body, the bewildered law officer stares at the decaying sacrifices hanging in the trees and asks the boy, “What the hell is this?”

“A prayer log,” says Arvin, “but it don’t work.”

Then there are Carl and Sandy, a grotesque couple who have a secret life as “self-styled serial murderers.” On weekends, they troll the side roads of surrounding states, looking for “models” ... young hitchhikers. Sandy is the “bait,” who seduces the young men; Carl is the photographer who records the encounter and then tortures and murders the victims. For Carl, all of this is controlled by some spiritual and/or religious force that directs him to his victims by secret signs and clues. During the week, the couple operates a tavern in Meade where Sandy’s brother is Sheriff Bodecker.

At this point, approximately one-third of the way into this surreal and hypnotic novel, when the narrative is acquiring the rocking speed of a souped-up roadster with a gutted muffler, it’s time to cease revealing the action and make a few observations on this novel’s merits. Instead of launching an all-out attack on the “shameful depiction of Southern degeneracy,” I feel constrained to note that this is a brilliant novel. In some ways it is similar to the cult film, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” by Andrew Douglas, which presents the rural South as a place in which “Christ, mysticism, superstition and the yin-yang forces of the sacred and the profane combine, creating a delicate blend of the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown.”

For those who live in the rural south, especially in the impoverished and remote areas, there are only two choices. “Choose Jesus or choose hell.” Readers who are familiar with the geography will readily recognize Meade, Ohio, since it has hundreds of clones. “A little paper mill town ... that smelled like rotten eggs. Strangers complained about the stench, but the locals like to brag about the sweet smell of money.” As Pollock catalogs Meade’s recreational opportunities, which seem to be limited to attending church, visiting the funeral home or consuming a case of beer on the back porch, many readers may feel an eerie sense of the familiar. Pollock moves with confidence through swamps, “school bus-littered junkyards and off-the-highway bars where drugs, sex and Pentecostal passions freely mingle.”

This is the natural habitat of Pollock’s characters. They are shaped and molded by dark, immutable forces which compel them to either go on mystical quests or murderous rampages. It is a place where the devout and the demonic constantly intersect. Billboards and rustic signs proclaim “Jesus is Coming,” and the local denizens readily admit either a reverence for heaven or a fondness for hell.

It may well be that many potential readers will be repulsed by the violence and otherworldly spirituality of The Devil All the Time. However, if a few thoughtful souls find a disturbing power in these stories of death and heartbreak, I would like to urge you to type this magical mantra into your Google: “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.”  Spend a little time with Andrew Douglas on YouTube in the company of Harry Crews, Tin Finger and a collection of deranged misfits who have looked into the core of their being and found both lyric beauty and terror.

 

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. Doubleday, 2012. 251 pages.

There’s a meeting this week to determine the future of “The Liar’s Bench.” This is a two-year-old throwback of sorts to the old-timey variety show, a gathering of local talent for the enjoyment, amusement and, on occasion, the edification of audiences.

The Liar’s Bench showcases authentic Southern Appalachian culture. None of your hee-haw tricks are found and exploited on this stage. Just good music, interesting and funny stories, and dramatic renderings of life as it really once was, and often is today, here in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Lack of money, however, that too-frequent destroyer of art, music, literature and dreams, is threatening to bring The Liar’s Bench to an end. Performances featuring some of the region’s best entertainers will continue through March and maybe into April at the Mountain Heritage Center on the campus of Western Carolina University and elsewhere in the region.

But after that? Well, the situation isn’t pretty.

“Finances might kill The Liar’s Bench,” founder Gary Carden said. “It has to be able to sustain itself. I’ve depended on the good will of people — really, taken advantage of them — for far too long. We hope we’ll do this again, but it’s not certain. Our future is none too secure.”

A show from The Liar’s Bench this past October was featured on the syndicated television program “Life in the Carolinas.” That’s hitting the big-time for any local talent venue. But, no matter how gratifying to those involved, even Carolinas-wide recognition doesn’t pay the bills.

Carden said the musicians and other performers need compensation to, in turn, sustain themselves and their families financially. He remains hopeful that a plan can be formulated to accomplish both those goals: saving The Liar’s Bench and paying the performers. But exactly what form that plan might take, and who precisely will develop this save-the-day plan, remain unsolved mysteries.

 

Crowd shrinks with ticket sales

The stage at the Mountain Heritage Center is small and intimate. The performance hall seems a perfect venue for this type of show, which generally features one entertainer at a time. The acoustics are good, the lighting well placed, the performers nicely rehearsed.

A couple of regulars for The Liar’s Bench weren’t here on this night, poet and musician Barbara Duncan and musician Eric Young. But Carden, Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach, claw-hammer guitar specialist Paul Iarussi and vocalist/musician William Ritter (the “boy genius” as Carden dubs this exceptional talent) were ready to take the stage. So were guitarist and singer Ken Beck, vocalist/musician Karen Barnes and dramatic monologist Tom Dewees, who would perform Carden’s dramatic work, “Coy.”

On this night, un-typically, admission of $10 per person was collected at the door as part of an attempt to try to stem the tide of financial insolvency. Admission was charged at a show earlier in February, too. Usually the show is free; the crowd tonight was considerably smaller than usual.

Carden, as ringmaster, was nattily attired in a white dress shirt and black pants and black vest. This was Carden in his native element, in full throat and happily on stage even when down in the audience hugging those he knew and shaking hands with those he didn’t.

Carden said he originally conceived of The Liar’s Bench as an opportunity to tell stories.

SEE ALSO: Sylva’s Gary Carden a true Southern Appalachian original

“When local musicians and poets agreed to perform, I realized that perhaps The Liar’s Bench was an opportunity to do more than merely entertain the audience,” he said. “Gradually, the show has become a means of showcasing Appalachian culture and presenting it with integrity and authenticity.”

If the show goes under another project now in the works could be lost, too:  The Liar’s Bench and the Mountain Heritage Center have been developing a series of programs called “The Balsam Chronicles.” The project is based on the history and folklore of the region.

 

A future training venue

Arneach is one of the most notable performers participating in The Liar’s Bench. On this night he told two stories, one Cherokee in origin and the other about a veteran of military service. Arneach is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and he served in the Vietnam War.

A tall, barrel-chested man, Arneach quickly captivated the audience with his booming, yet seductive, storytelling voice. His stories are relatively short, maybe 10 minutes in length tops, with defined beginnings, middles and ends. The applause when he finished was sustained and appreciative.

Arneach, in turn, is grateful to this venue and the additional people it allows him and the other entertainers involved to reach. He said that the growth of The Liar’s Bench in popularity over the past two years has been phenomenal to participate in and to watch.

“To get to see this type of diverse talent in one setting is unique to this area,” Arneach said.

He recalled the early shows at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. The Liar’s Bench rapidly outgrew the small room available there and moved through other venues before landing in its current home here at the Mountain Heritage Center. Until this month and the two attempts to fund the show by charging admission, the audience had been standing room-only, Arneach said.

The Cherokee storyteller considers The Liar’s Bench, if the performance venue can survive this financial crisis, as a potential training ground for young talent in WNC. He talked of the need to train future Cherokee storytellers because the youngest of the current group, which of course includes Arneach, is a woman in her 50s. Arneach worries the ancient stories could be lost without direct encouragement of younger Cherokee to take them up.

The Liar’s Bench could serve as a place for teaching this next generation of entertainers how to work with an audience, how to read an audience and general stagecraft tips “that I had to learn the hard-knock way,” Arneach said. “This would give them an opportunity to work on stage and learn what it’s like.”

Gary Carden didn’t realize he had an audience. He was coaching Lara Chew through a rehearsal of “Mother Jones,” a play he wrote three years ago about the famous American labor and community organizer. “Mother Jones” will be on stage for audiences in April.

Carden was seated in the front row of a small performance hall at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.

Chew attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Macon County, as does Carden, at least when he feels able to drive over the Cowee mountain range. Chew has spent many insomnia-ridden nights memorizing this more than hour-long dramatic monologue. For the most part, with only an occasional stumble, Chew’s rendition of Carden’s work sounded smooth and true. He mostly listened in silence.

Finally Carden interrupted.

“Drag that out right there,” he urged her. “Because that’s your theme.”

Chew nodded in understanding. She repeated the section again with more emphasis. Carden smiled appreciatively, apparently pleased with the result and the responsiveness to his suggestion.

Chew later discussed working with Carden, a Sylva native who has established himself as one of this region’s most-recognizable, best-known and best-loved wordsmiths through his storytelling, plays and short stories.

At the same time, Carden has earned a reputation for being, well, mercurial.

“He speaks his mind, and I appreciate that,” Chew said. “He wrote ‘Mother Jones,’ so he knows how it’s supposed to go. Yes, he’s easy to work with.”

Carden responded, “No, I’m not. I admit that readily.”

Then Carden added a self-assessment that he can “become irrational” if something blocks what he’s trying to accomplish artistically.

“Yeah, I reluctantly admit that I am a pain in the ass. I have been called a curmudgeon, a damned old geezer, ‘Gary Contrary,’ and a waitress in a local cafe calls me ‘Mr. Grumpy.’ I wish everybody loved me, and as one of my best friends tells me, ‘Gary, you are digging your grave with your tongue.’ But so be it. If you passionately love something and want to accomplish something meaningful, you are going to have to be a pain in the ass,” he said.

Carden is nothing if not complex. He’s a mix of a man, one who can be difficult but is equally capable of great love, generosity and tenderness; and of seemingly endless patience, as on this day with Chew.

 

Forever abandoned

How does a man become what and who he is? Carden has spent almost a lifetime, 77 years now, trying to answer that question through written and spoken words. He has told his story, in one form or another, a million times. The characters change, the context changes, the task remains unchanged: Who am I?

The facts that make up Carden’s life history aren’t easy. His father was murdered. His mother left for Knoxville, Tenn., ostensibly for “business school,” Carden said he was told.  

“I grew up thinking that Knoxville was some magic place where my mother lived and I ran away several times, at the ages of 3 and 4, going to Knoxville,” he said. “On one occasion, I was taken to Knoxville. I now think my grandparents intended to leave me … but something miscarried, and they brought me back home with no explanation.”  

Later, Carden learned that his mother had married a man she’d met in Sylva who had told her that if she came to Knoxville — without the boy — they would get married.  

“My grandmother used to discipline me by taking me out on the front porch and pointing to a worn place near the banisters,” Carden said. “‘There is where she left you,’ she would say. ‘Now, I took you when nobody wanted you and you owe me.’”

These experiences profoundly shaped the future writer.

SEE ALSO: Shortage of dollars threatens to kill popular local show, ‘The Liar’s Bench’

“Even when you are 77 you are still an abandoned child,” Carden said.

Dot Jackson is a longtime friend of Carden’s and an unabashed fan of his work. A former reporter who was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for work at The Charlotte Observer and at The Greenville News, Jackson has authored several nonfiction books. Her novel Refuge was published in 2006.

“Gary has made the most of a painful early childhood,” Jackson said. “As did Pat Conroy with his quick-fisted daddy, Gary has trademarked the imperfect lot of the orphaned toddler. Fact is, he’s done it with such alternating heart, pathos and comedy that like most everything else he does, it’s pretty much a work of genius. And unforgettable.

“I remember realizing, as I read more of the stuff he was writing, that he was exceptionally good. Not the kind of  ‘good’ that was learned, but the kind that is once-in-a-blue-moon born.”

Jackson remembers a young Carden expressing a possible desire to work in newspapers, where she spent most of her writing career. The South Carolina resident said being a reporter ensured her a decent living and the ability to write.

“But there was, involved in it, the business of give and take, learning to get all heated up about the fire at the trash dump, or ‘The Sewer Commission met on Thursday and took no action’ … This was not Gary’s world, and mercy kept him out of it,” she said. “He lived in a colorful, sweet-and-sour world of imagination. There were rainbows and clucking chickens and Cherokee bad words and sanctimonious uncles, and the stench of tanning hides that would have wrinkled a late-night editor’s brow — though the world would probably have loved it. Would have, and does.”

 

Wherefore ability?

Creative ability is a mysterious gift to comprehend anytime, why some people have it and others don’t. So how to decipher the wellsprings of Carden’s vast talent? That mystery is even more unfathomable in his case than others. Because Carden’s family was not what you’d describe as the artistic set, with the possibility, perhaps, of his father.

“He was exceptionally gifted as a musician and was reported to be able to play any musical instrument and often composed melodies off the top of his head, a talent that both awed and disturbed my grandfather. He would sometimes ask him to repeat a melody that he had just played and my father would reply, ‘I can’t, Daddy. It’s gone,’” Carden said.

The remainder of his family Carden described as “the salt of the earth.” Which means not visibly artistic, or interested in the arts, or interested in helping Carden explore his growing passion for literature.  

“No one read except my grandmother, who read Mary Rinehart novels and went to the movies each year to see ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley,’” Carden said. “There was a single bookcase in the house and it was filled with religious tracts, songbooks and They Were Expendable, a book about World War II.”

Carden was a lonely child. He had few playmates. When pressed, he’ll admit to being an outcast within his own family. Like countless isolated children have done before and since, Carden found what solace and comfort he could in books.

“I went to the barn and read and read and read,” Carden said.

When not reading, Carden listened to a small radio his uncle gave him, tuning into radio shows broadcast from the big city of Chicago straight into little Sylva. He memorized songs. He enjoyed comic books.

Eventually, and critically important to his development as a writer and storyteller, Carden discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He felt in his bones the music of the Asheville writer’s “poetic language.” Carden remains as passionate today about Wolfe’s work as when he first read the novelist.

In his book Mason Jars in the Flood, Carden through one character noted that Wolfe wrote “about loneliness and loss,” the great contrapuntal themes that sound in Carden’s own life. The language, he wrote, was beautiful: “the words booming like the organ at First Methodist. I found myself responding to the sound rather than the meaning. ‘Lost! Lost!’”

Carden taught about Wolfe at one time to elderhostel students. Carden quit because, he said, it upset him when they repeated all of the “hackneyed criticisms” of Wolfe, such as “he over-wrote.”

 

Working on impulse

You can thank Sylva’s Fire Department for Carden’s writing career. He started writing in the ninth grade when the fire department sponsored a contest.

“I won it by counting all the matches in a box and estimated the damage I could do with them,” Carden said. “I got a trophy that immediately turned green. The next event was another contest. I won six tickets to the first production of ‘Unto These Hills,’ and had no one to give them to since my family was uninterested.”

His first stories, as Carden tells it to audiences, were relayed to “my grandfather’s chickens in a dark chicken house when I was 6 years old. My audience wasn’t attentive and tended to get hysterical during the dramatic parts.”  

Carden had polio and sclerosis. This worked to his advantage when it came time for college: He attended WCU on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship.

“There is no way I would have been able to go otherwise,” Carden said.

Carden graduated with a degree to teach English, which he did for 15 years in Georgia and North Carolina before returning to WCU for his masters in English and drama. The university later awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Carden then wrote grants for 15 years for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“It was easy to do and the money rolled in,” Carden said. “I’m not bragging because Washington was eager to fund Native Americans.”

Then Carden went deaf. He continued on with Cherokee until, Carden said, “it became embarrassing.”

“I had problems because I misunderstood what was said by contacts in Washington. Once, I remember that a consultant said, ‘How do you justify Mead?’ That is what I heard. I said I didn’t see what Mead had to do with anything, Mead being the paper plant in Sylva that was a major polluter at the time. We ended up yelling at each other until I realized that he had said, ‘How do you justify need?’ That is just a tiny example of what became a daily problem,” Carden said.

His deafness propelled him directly into fulltime storytelling.

“I was fine as long as I got to do all of the talking,” Carden said. “Then I started teaching elderhostel and most of the elderhostel sponsors were tolerant of my deafness.”

When talking or listening to people, Carden described his attempt to turn up the volume by turning his two hearing aids on full blast. Even then, catching what was said was multiple choices and simply guessing, Carden said.

“Sometimes I’d guess right, sometimes wrong,” he said.

A girlfriend of old paid three years ago for a cochlear implant despite, Carden admitted, an inability of the two to “talk for 30 minutes without shouting at each other.”

The gift transformed his life. Able to hear, his ability to function creatively exploded again into full bloom.

Writers work in different ways, some methodically and others more impulsively. Carden is in the latter camp. He often writes starting at 3 a.m., taking advantage of insomnia to do work more or less “on impulse.”

“Sometimes ideas bother me for months and even years before I finally break down and write about it,” Carden said.

Carden said he started out writing poetry, which he described without elaboration as “a terrible mistake.”

“I did a few inept short stories and finally gave it up until I wrote Mason Jars in the Flood,” he said.

Carden has written eight plays. Asked why has found drama so satisfying a form to work in, Carden explained there is something fundamental about being on stage that helps fill the hole of loneliness.

“When you are on there, people pay attention to you,” Carden said. “You get on that stage and people look at you, and you’re understood until the next day. In my mind it disproved my suspicion that I was worthless ... I was proving that I was ‘worth something.’ The problem is, this quick fix does not last. Within a day or so, the sense of being worth something fades, and you have to start looking for an opportunity to do it again.”  

Carden has in the past decade started receiving long-due recognition. Awards and general accolades for his lifetime of work have started flowing in, pleasing those who have watched him labor for so many years. Among them is Joyce Moore, the retired owner of the popular City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. She was at a recent production of Carden’s “The Liar’s Bench” with husband, Allen.

“I’m glad Gary finally seems to be hitting the big time after all the years,” Moore said. “He’s an incredibly talented person.”

Mason Jars in the Flood won the Book of the Year Award in 2001 from the Appalachian Writers Association. Two of Carden’s dramatic monologues, “Prince of Dark Corners” and “Nance Dude” have been filmed and appeared on PBS and the Discover Channel. He’s a 2006 winner of a Brown-Hudson Award in Folklore.

Carden has become a speaker at various literary events, including an upcoming appearance April 13-14 at the Carolina Literary Festival in Wadesville, where he’ll talk about storytelling becoming drama.

 

Works by Gary Carden

• “The Uktena,” a Cherokee “mime” play.

• A series of Cherokee plays based on the Nunnihi, street chiefs, old myths.

• “The Raindrop Waltz,” an autobiographical play that has received national exposure.

• “Mason Jars in the Flood,” an award-winning book of short stories.

• “Land’s End,” three monologues presented as a complete play.

• “Belled Buzzards, Hucksters and Grieving Specters,” a play written with Nina Anderson.

• “Papa’s Angels,” written with Colin Wilcox. Made into a movie.

• “Nance Dude,” filmed with Elizabeth Westall.

• “Prince of Dark Corners” made into a movie for PBS and Discovery Channel.

• “The Bright Forever,” a play.

• “A Sunday Evening in Webster,” a monologue.

• “Signs and Wonders,” a play. Premiered in Highlands last year.

• “Coy,” a play that was originally a part of the trilogy “Land’s End.”

• “Mother Jones,” a monologue.

• “Outlander,” a full-length play about Horace Kephart and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will have a full musical score and will be performed this June at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.

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