‘In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray.’
– Dante’s Inferno,
Canto 1, lines 1, 2
Michael Farris Smith has taken two Southern jokes and turned them on their literary heads.
Kudzu and ghosts are not worthy of serious fiction unless in the hands of a master storyteller, such as Smith in his fifth and latest work of fiction, “Blackwood.”
Set in Mississippi in the mythical town of Red Bluff, “Blackwood” involves
people near or at the very bottom of society.
Poor, ignorant – and haunted.
By what? There’s the mystery cloaked in the kudzu valley whence disembodied voices and almost-human howls seem to emanate.
Some are haunted by their extremely willful ignorance or a traumatic event in their childhood.
Smith, a Mississippi State graduate, fell into modern Southern literature on a visit to Oxford and caught the disease.
But his first work of fiction didn’t sound like what your might expect.
“Hands of Strangers” is a novella set in Paris. Smith had an extended gig promoting the NBA in Europe. The novella sounds like Hemingway – and good Hemingway at that – whom he read while on the Continent, along with Faulkner and other greats.
Later books, “Desperation Road” and “The Fighter” move into what you might expect from a Southerner.
“Blackwood,” befitting its title, is the most noir of the lot. (Disclosure: I have only begun reading “Rivers,” his second novel.)
Looking for a geographical inspiration? Just a guess, but try the kudzu valleys along Highway 82 just east of Carrollton, which sits atop a bluff overlooking the Delta.
If the doomed of Red Bluff’s denizens aren’t in the lowest circle of Dante’s hell, they are moving in that direction.
There is no salvation in this book, unlike Smith’s predecessor works, not even victories.
There is lostness, even (or that especially so?) in the civilized Parisian world of the first one.
Smith — who unforgiveably was called William in an earlier version of this piece — is a member of the new generation of Southern noir and gothic writers, along with Tom Franklin, Matthew Guinn, Greg Iles, Chris Offutt and others.
Those writers live and flourish in Mississippi, third generation offspring of Faulkner, the man who was the sole inventor of Southern literature nearly 100 years ago.
Kudzu was introduced in the South in the late 19th century for erosion control and shade. And no place has been infested more than Mississippi. Is there a connection? Decidedly, there is in “Blackwood.”
Kudzu’s appetite is legendary.
In “Blackwood” the bottom dwellers find new depths in the vines, whose advance seemingly cannot be stopped, like Shakespeare’s Birnam Wood.
The vines’ call, from the other view, seems irresistible, like the siren to the sacrificial Eloi in H.G. Wells’ very futuristic “Time Machine.”
But this time travel is in the other direction. The almost primitive outlook and language of the most wretched of the characters of “Blackwood” – the man, the woman and the boy – grab and pull the reader downward from one bleakness to the next.
The land itself is a character.
“Down from the bluffs the vines hung like ropes. Small thickets of forest had been conquered decades before, the vines climbing to the highest points and reaching out to the farthest limbs, intertwined and forming slumping canopies… . Down below this stretching canvas of green was the blackwood where creatures crawled and sunlight fought through pecks of space between the leaves.”
One of the human characters, who had lived her life in Red Bluff, takes a weary rational stab at what is haunting the little town:
“This place is one big ghost story. Stories about the valley. Stories about the man who killed himself. It’s what we do.”
Then things happen that are not so easily waved away.
One person disappears in the kudzu, then another….
» JACK WEATHERLY is the senior reporter for the Mississippi Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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