M. Glenn Taylor, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart
2009, 288 pages, paperback, $13.96
i never learned much in school. My parents are educated, but my grandfather only graduated from the eighth grade. I don’t think he was surprised when I dropped out of high school when I was fourteen. I’m told the small town in Missouri I grew up in has a truant officer, but I never met him. At sixteen, my grandfather gave me a job working in a used car dealership, only I wasn’t a salesman, I washed bird shit off cars and mowed the grass on the dealership lot. He’s since told me that giving me this job was part of his plan to motivate me into college. I didn’t realize how smart he was until I was finishing my BS in History some years later and found out that he had been paying my salary at the dealership out of his own pocket at a rate of twenty dollars a day for two years. He bamboozled me into taking my GED and going to college. I confronted him about this, but he shied away from the question and asked me if I was better off being a high school dropout or a college graduate. I didn’t have an answer for him.
Now, I’m in graduate school studying for my MFA in creative writing, surrounded by some of the most educated minds my generation has to offer. I don’t fit in, so I play the part of an educated man. I’m quiet when others speak, and nod my head like I understand when the talk turns to chic literary trends coming out of the east coast. I spend my time reading books by dead men, while my friends read bestsellers and dream of being the next literary rock stars in America. I’m not one of them, and I often find myself wondering not if, but when my colleagues will notice that I’m bamboozling them. M. Glenn Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, introduces a protagonist who constantly bamboozles the public by changing his identity only to be bamboozled in return.
The book was first issued in 2008 by West Virginia University Press, and it would have gone largely unnoticed if it hadn’t been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s not odd for small press books to be nominated for major literary awards, but it is extraordinary for a small press book to be selected as a finalist. So it was for Mr. Taylor’s book as The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart found itself in the running with literary heavyweights: Bolano’s 2666, Robinson’s Home, Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, and Strout’s Olive Kittredge. And while 2666 ultimately won the competition, even though its author had been dead for years, Taylor’s nomination proved that small presses are still capable of producing books that can contend with such publishing giants as FSG, Random House, and Riverhead.
The book’s success is owed to its fascinating protagonist. Trenchmouth Taggart’s rotten and diseased gums leave his mouth permanently stinking and deformed, a truly grotesque character created in a tradition of American realism that defined southern writers like Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Conner, and William Faulkner. Taylor’s first novel is stunning, sure to propel the author into the ranks of great contemporary southern writers like Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Chris Offutt, Lewis Norton, and Barry Hannah, all of whom use grotesque characters, which often causes their work to be labeled by critics as “Southern Gothic.”
Barry Hannah, the South’s greatest living short story writer, held the distinguished Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University in San Marcos (the same school from which Taylor earned his MFA). During his stay, Mr. Hannah was asked to give a lecture on Southern Gothic–an apt topic considering Hannah’s grotesque characters–but there was a problem. He didn’t believe the term Southern Gothic had anything to do with his writing, or any other southern writer’s work. Hannah believes that Southern Gothic doesn’t exist, and he’s right. It’s a term used to judge southern realism from a distance. Calling Barry Hannah Southern Gothic is like calling work from James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright “Ghetto Literature.” Barry Hannah did the lecture, arriving at the podium dressed as a dandy, wearing a cape and carrying a cane some of the students bought him from eBay just for this occasion. Hannah opened the lecture by asking the audience if Southern Gothic meant a vampire was supposed to descend from the rafters and start biting at his neck.
Hannah was joking, mostly. But his frustration was well founded. Southern realism has carried the stigma ever since 1936 when Ellen Glasgow labeled Faulkner’s work Southern Gothic. She did so speaking to a group of librarians about the lurid and shocking nature of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, (the women surely sweltered in their seats at mention of the corncob). Of course librarians just had to create a genre out of this torrid literature coming out of the South, but what they and subsequent critics failed to realize is that Southern realism has always used the grotesque from the time of Samuel Clemens and earlier to point out social injustice and racial inequality.
The grotesque is found in all great works of southern realism, because it’s mimetic to a character’s environment. What repels readers from grotesque character’s like Popeye, the impotent rapist in Faulkner’s Sanctuary, the ghoulish lover Lester Ballard in McCarthy’s Child of God, the homosexual murderer Vince in Hannah’s “Coming Close to Donna,” and the diseased and deformed hillbilly marksman in Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, isn’t the hideous nature of their deeds or physical deformities; it’s the fact that they’re real. You can walk into your local Wal-Mart and see them. They’re usually greeters who hand you your shopping cart and wish you a good day. I know because I used to work at Wal-Mart as a greeter.
Taylor has created something rare out of his native West Virginia: honest characters with a core of morality and social consciousness criminally absent in today’s fiction. The narrative begins in 2010 with a 108 year old Taggart agreeing to be interviewed by Time Magazine about his past, beginning with his baptism and near death in the Tug River as a two-month-old baby. He’s found by the Widow Dorsett who plucks him from the freezing water just like the biblical story of Moses being found in the bulrushes. Taggart narrates his own life in the third person, and this form of narration is a telling similar to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, Conrad’s Marlow, and Gurganus’ Confederate Widow. Taylor includes other character’s points of view: the Widow Dorsett who raises Taggart, his half sister, and others to paint a vivid picture of the West Virginia Appalachian landscape.
The language is crisp and there’s a near flawless sense of movement throughout the novel. Taylor has a keen sense of detail and uses the colloquial hillbilly dialect to bring this out. Emotion is downplayed in every scene. This is evident when eight year old Taggart digs through the pit beneath the outhouse he uses and discovers the remains of his father, who was killed by the Widow Dorsett.
And once Trenchmouth used his fingers to dig and brush away the remaining dirt, a face looked back at him, sunken and scared. Hollow and clay red. He stared at the face, and as he put his hand to his nose again, the hills around him seemed to shift at their foundations and the trees and the sky went red. Then all of it, everything, almost fell away to nothing. The boy had an unexplainable urge to spit in the dead man’s empty eyes.
The greatest dignity a character conveys comes from honesty, but how often do we find this in contemporary fiction?
Authors artificially “round” out characters, making them politically correct so they’re more palatable to readers. Not so with Trenchmouth Taggart. He’s a sniper in the coal mine wars, a cunilingist to older women, and a mountain hermit living off of the land. The dignity Taggart possesses comes from his backwoods upbringing at the hands of the Widow Dorsett, who constantly warns the boy to be careful of being bamboozled. This theme runs the entire length of the book and causes Taggart to become more cynical as he grows older.
Taylor has tirelessly researched the historical events within the novel: the West Virginia coal mine wars, the Jazz and Blues scene in Chicago, presidential candidate John Kennedy’s visit to West Virginia. Taggart is at the center of these events as a sniper, a harmonica player, and a newspaper reporter. Taylor’s writing avoids the pitfalls of nostalgia associated with poor historical novels, and this is no easy task considering how easy it would be for a lesser writer to let the novel drift into a story like Forrest Gump, but Trenchmouth Taggart ain’t Forrest Gump. No, Gump is dumb and innocent, bumbling through great events unawares, while Taggart is smart and guileful, demanding things not for himself, but for the West Virginia he loves when he interviews Kennedy.
The sadness in The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart comes from the realization that the people we love and the culture we come from don’t live up to our expectations. Taylor’s answer to this is to have Taggart change his identity and run away when the world bamboozles him until he’s grown so withered and old that he becomes a living myth to the people in the backwoods of his youth.
I still don’t have an answer for my grandfather, at least not an honest one, even though he asks me if I’m better off having gone to college every time I see him. I just shake his hand, but it’s hard to do. When it comes to life, I’m still more gullible than I ever was guileful.