James Braziel - "This Ditch-Walking Love"
This week, Don reviews "This Ditch-Walking Love" stories by James Braziel.
James Braziel grew up on a small farm where his people raised watermelon and cut pulpwood, and he comes from that section of South Georgia, which created Harry Crews, the grittiest of the grit-litters. Now he lives in Appalachia, near Oneonta, north of Birmingham. In these stories, folks speak of going up to Snead. This 187-page book has 16 stories, if you want to count them that way. Some are full-length stories, and several are sketches reminiscent in their way of the short pieces in “in our time.”
My favorite, perhaps, is “Jack Who Loves to Paint.” Our narrator, Gill, explains that around where he lives, only children paint. Sadly, the artistic impulse is stifled in most by high school. Except for Jack, who paints compulsively, sometimes all day and all night, pausing only to drink water, not even to eat. During this story, Jack has set up his easel, van Gogh-like, in a field next to a truss factory. (These trusses are for holding roofs, not hernias.) The boss, Mr. Dawson, urges his workers to move faster and ignore Jack, who vigorously covers the canvas with red paint, then lightens it, then applies green, then with his hands paints the easel itself. He paints slowly and then in a frenzy. They are fascinated, and so is Mrs. Dawson, Charlene. Charlene complains that Mr. Dawson ignores her and spends all his time at the truss factory. Wearing makeup and perfume, she brings Jack biscuits, sits next to him, and puts her mouth up to his ear. She is “whispering something or kissing him or licking him,” but to no avail. She is distressed. “’He’s disturbed.” she says, “He won’t talk to me. He won’t do anything.’” Jack the painter’s refusal to indulge Charlene is the exception in this collection.
Many of these unhappy people indulge in sex, adulterous and otherwise, and violence, one imagines to enliven their dreary lives. In “Cheat Road,” our narrator, an older man, called Creek because of his possible heritage, tells us his wife, Inez, is having an affair with young Bucky Tyler. He explains, “‘Now I had three choices in the matter. I could kill them, or one of them, though violence has never been part of my plan… Which left the third option—I needed someone to want.” He explains: “Life is want. The whole idea of it. Everything about it. To stop wanting is to die.” He hooks up again with Lulu, an African American woman who had been his girlfriend in the past. Creek is a kind of mystic, who perceives “fields” around people. This story branches out into murder and is drenched in blood. The composite story “Tulipwood,” in six parts, is a kind of “Rashomon” of lynching. We hear from the white woman who accused, a lyncher later filled with guilt, finally from the wrongly hanged man himself. The language is sometimes lyrical, nearly poetic, but harsh, nevertheless. Braziel’s stories show a raw, hard side of Alabama rough country, filled with barbed wire. Even the ground is flinty with chert.