Review by Danilo Thomas
Charles Dodd White’s Sinners of Sanction County, set in the heart of Appalachia, is packed full of booze, animals, backwoodsmen and woodswomen, as well of as the blood that can be drawn from each of them in the most violent, if not creative, of means. These tropes have come to be inseparable from what over the last few years is emerging as a genre that knits violence of character to the existence of nature, the force of place. In this case, the force of Sanction County, North Carolina. White’s world is rendered vividly here, and it is brutal, and so his characters, too, are brutal. This is nothing we have not seen recently in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s or Donald Ray Pollack’s spine jarring fictions, but what saves Sinners from redundancy is a “grace of calamity,” as White puts it, that gives these stories a life of their own and that separates the noirish, often excessive violence from the emotions fueling these acts. White allows the reader to recognize the sorrow in the characters even while they wipe the blood off their hands.
In the first story, “Hawkins’s Boy,” White’s language is functioning at its most lyric. It is the story of a man who has had to bury his only son, not in the traditional sense, but by moving earth with his own aging hands from the grounds just in front of his own front porch. It is not long until the dogs roaming free in the hills take scent of the boy and unearth him. Now, as gruesome as this scene is, White manages to turn the situation into something close to beautiful. He writes, “Hawkins would lie awake into that hour of the night and listen for the working of the dogs’ teeth into tissue. The over and under shotgun lay slanted in the corner, the shape of a promise he would not place beyond his reach. But he did not take the gun and creep out of the house to shoot the dogs.” The inability of Hawkins to save his boy reverberates throughout the story until it becomes deafening and leaves Hawkins powerless. In this first story, White demonstrates the important ability to lay aside the well-realized, smart though gruesome details, and to get to the core of a man encumbered by the ineptitude of true loss.
White’s notions of loss resound throughout the book and are often at their best when they are most subtle. In “Killer,” a boy named Hiram goes to hunting camp with his father, and the men make “no effort to wait for him,” leaving him sore and struggling in the early morning hours to keep up. A man-child named Henry waits for him, and when the two wound a deer they end up tracking the blood trail into the forest realizing as they go that the difference between loss and success is a very fine line. White allows the reader to draw distinction from the story, unfolding the narrative at a wonderful pace, never forcing, never pointing, but opening up a story that is deceptively sincere, and one that wanders back and forth across the border of sincerity and terror.
It is this line that White chooses to walk in Sinners, and while the wounded deer cannot hope for reconciliation with the hunters many characters wounded physically or emotionally in this book make plans for violent retaliation. In “A World of Daylight,” White has Packer, an ex-tank gunner, searching through the night for the woman, Drema, he holds responsible for the death of his brother, and who, he has convinced himself, is not “a phantom of his own making, but a receipt of hate he could grasp.” While this story teeters on the verge of melodrama, the conflict and transformation of Packer is deftly crafted. He sways between two separate kinds of correctness, killing Drema, justifying the code of the land, or not killing her, justifying a higher moral code. The duality of law and of emotion makes each answer, each situation, inherently and simultaneously correct and incorrect.
The duplicity of consciousness becomes visible in most of White’s stories, and the attraction is that the reader can relate to the foreignness of his Appalachian settings and characters because it is human nature to often be conflicted. White demonstrates his ability to draw out these internal struggles in the rural hills of Appalachia, mentioned in the stories above, but he also familiarizes the reader with the pseudo-urban areas and historical context of Sanction County. In “The Sweet Sorrowful,” a plot founded on “the stuff, in short, of Real Bitchslapping Truth” is one of the brighter in the collection. Pendergast, “stoned, still good and stoned,” attempts to steal fish for the local child cancer treatment center only to pay the inevitable price of kindness. Pendergast’s demons collide with his need to help and lead to an unexpected and interesting conclusion. Likewise, in “The Age of Stone,” a story set in 1934, an engineer named McCallister seeks to open “up the world to the hillcountry and the hillcountry to it.” McCallister must do battle with the locals, whom he would not hire, in order to complete a tunnel straight through the mountaintop. In the end, it is not internal conflict fueled by drink or drug-fueled lunacy that becomes McCallister’s undoing, but his level-minded, cold calculations.
As interesting and well crafted as are most of the stories in Sinners, White has a few stories where the plight of the characters borders on the comical, if not the absurd. In “Give Up and Go Home, Jasper,” an uninteresting beer swilling, foul-mouthed group of local friends belittles woman in a false sort of reverence, of women and of each other. There, banter does not near clever as a lot of the dialogue plays do in other stories, but comes off as merely offensive. Then in what seems to be an attempt to correct or possibly defend the nature of these men, White drowns a random seeming foxhunting scene in whiskey. The finale is predictable, the characters remain uninteresting throughout, and one of the only women to appear in the collection is static in her grotesquery.
Which brings up the consideration of women in the book. Women are few and far between, and when they do appear they are often cast in flat roles. The big exceptions to this case, however, are the characters of Drema in the aforementioned “World of Daylight,” and the women in “Patient Monsters.” In “Patient Monsters,” Holcombe sits in a coffee shop on Christmas ignoring the advances of a bored and lonely waitress. The simplicity of the waitress’s character is contrasted to the volatility of Holcombe’s wife, Holly, and mother-in-law. He is waiting for his wife to arrive at the diner so that he and she might spend the night together after some time apart. It is not completely apparent why the two are apart, but it is apparent that Holcombe does not agree with Caroline, his mother-in-law, and may react violently to her. The possibility of this action is a quiet, well-orchestrated move by White that keeps the tension simmering throughout the story. Holcombe retrieves Holly for the evening, and the contact between the two becomes at one instant tender, at another completely caustic, and the psychological void between the two becomes a panicked breath the reader cannot look away from.
In Sinners of Sanction County, White presents us with a world that is economically and often morally depraved, as the title promises. The fathers and the sons, the brothers and the friends that struggle against the pressures of tradition in the face of an emotional progression do so because they know of only one way to live, and that is to live like the men that reared them, to adhere to strength and pride. This adherence to the past becomes their fatal flaw, but it is the beauty in White’s rendering the nearness in which the characters come to understand their own concerns and confused notions of forgiveness and love—before having these notions violently and inevitably destroyed—that makes these stories worthwhile. White’s awareness of the booze and the blood, and his ability to render them gracefully with his beautiful language and astute observances, keeps Sinners of Sanction County from becoming a collection of backwoods torturescapes, and instead makes the collection a harrowing emotional reflection on intimate relationships and how these relationships progress. As White says, these stories “are the truest plights of a good man’s heart. No law…no law of nature has been broken here.”
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