“Snakehunter” and “Last Mountain Dancer,” by Chuck Kinder

Chuck Kinder

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Snakehunter and Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life, by Chuck Kinder, offer a glimpse into the wide-ranging styles mastered by one of West Virginia’s most talented authors. Each of his four books is unique and wholly original in approach. His writing eschews the formulaic, the stilted, the expected. Snakehunter is a coming-of-age story like no other, while Last Mountain Dancer is a tall-tale memoir of Kinder’s life while on sabbatical collecting West Virginia myths, legends, and folklore. West Virginia University Press is releasing new editions in August 2018.

Born in 1942 in Montgomery, West Virginia, Kinder earned his BA and MA at West Virginia University and then attended Stanford University on a Stegner Fellowship. He later taught at Stanford, Waynesburg College, and the University of Pittsburgh. His other books include Silver Ghost and The Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale. The latter was loosely based on Kinder’s chaotic friendship with fellow writer Raymond Carver. Kinder’s struggle with the 3,000-page manuscript of The Honeymooners became the basis for the character Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel Wonder Boys, which was made into a movie starring Michael Douglas. Chabon was an undergraduate student of Kinder’s at Pitt. Kinder currently resides in Key Largo with his wife Diane.


Three narrative threads run through Snakehunter, Kinder’s first novel, originally published in 1973 by Alfred A. Knopf. In the dominant strand, a retrospective narrator, Speer Whitfield, shares memories of his 1940s childhood in southern West Virginia. Kinder expertly blends the perspective of the adult looking back on events while keeping the child’s limited awareness and vocabulary intact in scenes and dialogue. Another narrative strand centers on a brief period in Speer’s young adult years when he loved a girl named Mary. This voice resembles an echo bouncing off walls in the dark cave of Speer’s memory, its scenes rendered in a chilling, remote tone. The third strand consists of journalistic passages that enrich the novel’s themes. They also serve as introductions and transitions to the next scene. For example, Kinder jumps from first person reflection on the quality of darkness beneath a tree into a spin on “Old Nero of burned Rome fame” and then hops right back to the tree. The Nero passage lifts darkness into the symbolic level of the darkness of a human soul. Similar leaps happen with passages on Tarzan and a jump into local theaters, on trees throughout history and then timbering in his family, and on cultural facts about infanticide followed by abortion in the present. While the novel is literary in scope and execution—and its themes are serious and often dark—the story is also infused with delicious humor and warmth toward some of the characters, particularly Catherine.

Four traditional symbols twist through the novel in tangled coils: the snake, representing immortality; the turtle, longevity; water, purity and source of life; and fish, fertility. Why this obsession with immortality and fertility? Answers begin to appear in the second chapter, where Kinder delivers an array of incidents, tones, and styles centered on water and fish.

The chapter begins with an amusing anecdote in which Speer knowingly serves his mother’s friends tea from a pitcher containing a drowned mouse. The humor is followed by a dark incident in which he crawls through a slimy tunnel holding his “puny cock” in his hand in order to be initiated into a gang (38). With his other hand, he holds a dead cat. In the darkness, he loses the cat and has failed the initiation. The boys call out that he “was stupid to fall for the ordeal bit” anyway (40). At that moment, Speer’s yearning for acceptance flips into desire for revenge. He waits until the gang leader reaches him in the tunnel and slams a tree branch into his adversary’s face.

The next scene reveals the source of Speer’s rage: his testicles failed to descend normally, resulting in infertility. The holding of the cock in the previous scene wasn’t gratuitous at all. Speer recalls his family’s efforts to help his testicles descend. The humiliation of having a family member check between his legs after his nightly bath. The endless examinations, the pullings, the proddings. The hospitalization. The surgery. All to no avail. Kinder places this incident next to a journalistic list detailing the meaning of fish in different cultures, ending with the Egyptians, who hated fish. Speer hates his condition, hates his stepfather’s barely hidden “shame and resentment” toward a “screwed up” stepson (44).  The most crucial scene occurs in a junior high gym class where Speer refuses to shower, in an effort to hide his condition, but one boy taunts him by calling out, “No Nuts.” When the coach discovers Speer is not showering, he not only fails to show sympathy for the boy’s condition, he forces him to strip and then paddles him. Speer takes revenge by repeatedly vandalizing the coach’s car. This formative incident appears with slight variation in each of Kinder’s four books, carrying the message that cruelty begets cruelty; the bullied becomes the bully.

Two scenes at a lake follow, both involving cruelty. In the first, Speer as a young man watches his black friend Finus punch and then rape a woman without intervening even though she asks if Speer is going to let it happen. Afterward, she runs into the lake alone at night, and it is unclear if she drowns or simply desires to wash away the violation. This sin of omission illustrates Speer’s lack of empathy, the impenetrable wall he has built between himself and others. Beside another lake, Speer and his girlfriend Mary build elaborate sand castles. They make bets on which people strolling by will not be able to resist destroying them. He is better at spotting destructive people than she is, implying that he recognizes the quality because it resides within him. Finally Mary builds a sand sculpture that looks like “an enormous cock” and “with her usual gentleness, Mary ignored the nuts” since Speer’s are not visible (58). Women who see the pillar are horrified, trying to topple the image and hold the children back, but the kids become impossible to restrain and gleefully kick, stomp, and obliterate Mary’s artistic creation. Children, it would seem, are inherently destructive. While incidents in this chapter at first may appear unrelated, it eventually becomes clear they all involve psychological effects resulting from Speer’s malfunctioning testicles.

The title Snakehunter refers to the secret name Speer’s grandfather gives to the boy’s pet turtle, and also the grandfather’s boat. Speer’s bullying cousin, nicknamed Hercules, deliberately hurls a huge stone at the turtle under pretense of killing a nonexistent snake. The turtle’s protective shell does not prevent death. Speer’s first pet turtle met a similar fate, smashed by one of his mother’s boyfriends. A final turtle—this time just an empty shell—is given to Speer by a well-meaning uncle. The boy throws it away because the shell without the turtle is meaningless. Symbolically, Speer is the snakehunter, the one who seeks immortality through children, but cannot achieve it because he is sterile. His testicles are as useless as an empty turtle shell.

Yet all is not lost. The importance of memories as a way of achieving immortality evolves into a major theme. When Grandpa shares memories of how the river used to be and how it had changed, Speer says, “Well, you told me all these things about the river so now I can remember them too. The way you do. That way they’ll stay real” (109). The past lives on through memory. The repetition of ghosts, goblins, and the word “boo” furthers the motif of haunting memories. Speer’s brilliant Aunt Catherine, a mentor delivering gifts of wisdom and compassion, suggests “memories were like the goblins: were like ghost echoes of time, of the past” (207). Catherine is haunted by her own ghosts, the memory of a lost love in her youth. Another passage illustrates the power of the past, the way it lurks everywhere, even in remote places. Speer climbs a mountain in the Kanawha Valley with his girlfriend Mary: “In the high branches of the trees around us, I could hear the dark wind, could hear the ghosts of that haunted hill, could hear them booing all around us like crazy” (191). Perhaps the most important scene centered on this motif occurs near the novel’s end, as Aunt Catherine and Speer walk slowly down the rutted road, away from the rest of the family:

“My my. Just listen to those old spooky woods,” Catherine said, and I could sense her shiver.

“To what?”

“Oh, just to all the ghosts and goblins back in there. Back in the dark spooky spooky woods.”

So I listened with all of my heart to the goddamn woods.

So, boo, goddamn it. Boo. (212)

Not only Aunt Catherine and Speer, but all of us are haunted by memories and by ghosts of the departed.

While Catherine is in a sanitarium, she writes “strange little stories” to Speer, some of which he figured out while others remained obscure. One myth concerning the proper building of a house she shares particularly stands out. An astrologer must search about the planned foundation for a house until he “divines with his magic the exact spot above the head of that snake which supports our world” (138). Then the builder carves a sharpened stake and hammers it into the ground at the divined spot, securing the snake’s head. This “primal gesture of colonization is crucial since “if ever this snake should shake its head violently free, our world would fly like a shower of swirling birds to pieces” (138). A sharpened stake resembles a spear and also a pen. The myth may suggest that Speer has the responsibility to hunt the head of the snake and secure the memories of the place the family inhabits for all time.

Speer says “dead things are my hobby,” in a way carrying on the work of his uncle, a doctor who kept dead babies in jars, but Speer keeps the dead with him through memories (203). Chapter Fourteen is a collection of R.I.P.s, recalling how and when various characters in the family died—and a few last words about how they lived. Speer’s grandfather, a man who spent four years in prison for murder, was the first death the boy experienced. As part of a mob, his grandfather had castrated a black man who insulted a white woman. Speer finds this violence hard to reconcile with the gentle man he knew as his grandfather. The cruel and the kind exist simultaneously in many of Kinder’s characters.

Next was the traumatic loss of his sister Cynthia, who died at 11 of cancer of the face. Cynthia, a staunch defender of her little brother, could also be cruel, yelling insults at black people who stared at her. People stare because her face is ravaged by disease. She reacts with angry, belittling comments. The racism illustrated by Speer’s grandfather and sister were typical attitudes of whites during the 1940s and 1950s.

More deaths follow. Aunt Catherine. Uncle Charlie. Speer feels he has a responsibility to remember because the people and places of the past stay alive as long as someone remembers: “When you remembered with all of your heart you brought things back from the dead” (208). Here, then, lies immortality.

The journalistic strand also deals with death and memory, describing different society’s beliefs on dying, many of which seem quite odd to Americans today. The list, which appears twice in the novel, includes examples of infanticide, illustrating the importance of the novel’s next death, and the haunting memory of Mary. She was pregnant, but obviously not with Speer’s child. Speer says “as far as I was concerned she had but one option” and he is “not impressed with her Catholic crap” (202). The irony, of course, is that while he encourages her to have an abortion, his overwhelming desire is to be able to father children himself. The father of Mary’s baby may be Speer’s friend Finus, but this is not clear. Speer allows Mary to go swimming alone at night and she drowns—another sin of omission. It is unknown if the death was suicide or accidental, but Speer says, “there are responsibilities which I owe to myself that begin with my memory” (203). He hints he will seek revenge for Mary’s death, but it isn’t clear if he will merely beat up Finus or if he intends to murder him. The man’s name suggests ending or finishing, while Speer’s name suggests a powerful weapon, perhaps one that will seek revenge.

This dark dwelling on cruelty and death is lightened by funny moments and lovely lyrical passages. Kinder’s self-deprecating humor trickles throughout the novel, particularly in dialogue. In one memorable scene, Speer and his mother have just arrived at Aunt Erica’s house for a long stay. Aunt Erica, a take-charge woman with broom in hand, immediately sets to fussing about Speer’s runny nose, which is “going right in his little mouth” (19). She insists one of the adults should have wiped it, but Speer’s Ma retorts, “He’s partial to snot” (19). Ma’s irreverence is delightful. Kinder’s humor emerges more subtly, too, in Aunt Erica’s frequent repetition of her personal philosophy, that you have to be practical to get through life. This characterization rings true, since most families have at least one member that loves to repeat homilies. Kinder’s craft is evident when he refrains from telling us this is irritating, instead letting readers become mildly annoyed with the aunt’s repetition, just as family members would.

In another charming scene, Speer has just wet his pants after his pet turtle was cruelly murdered. Catherine (Kitty)—Speer’s brilliant, alcoholic, spinster aunt—has come to his rescue with a dry pair of jeans and comforting words. Speer shows his appreciation for her kindness with a childish but sincere offer:

“Kitty, do you remember what my Pop looked like?”

“Why, yes indeed.”

“Well what did he? Look like I mean.”

“You’ve seen his picture.”

“I forget it.”

“Well, actually, he looked a great deal like I suspect you will look one day. Handsome as a movie star. Handsome as Tyrone Power.”

. . .

“Wouldn’t  it be nice if you and me could get married some day?”

“I accept! I accept! This is the closest I have ever been. We will begin making plans as soon as we get home.”  (210-211)

By this time in the novel, readers already love Aunt Kitty, and this scene only serves to endear her further, despite her faults. She is one of the few characters who shows true empathy. On one occasion, she stops to scoot a drunk passed out along a roadside onto newspapers. When Speer and his sister Cynthia ask why she did it, she responds, “Empathy,” which she defines as recognition (87). She sees herself in the old drunk, but more than that, she recognizes his humanity.

Beautiful lines that sing like poetry are also scattered through the novel. One of the finest passages, a philosophical, glorious delving into light and darkness, occurs after Cynthia dies:

The evening light, Catherine once told me, was so beautiful, so mysterious as to suck your very breath away, when it would flow shadows through a room like moving water. . . . And just plain old everyday light did every bit of it, pulling mysterious things from all it touched, for mysteries just lurked everywhere, waiting only to be enchanted by such magic as spun light. For lights, she told, were like God’s very fingertips and helped His magic twin the world together . . . making things pull together, then push apart, then pull together again, everywhere and forever. Like moonlight waving the sea into tides and pulling nails loose from shingled roofs. The whole world! Magic of the fingertips of God. (187-188)

Catherine’s exploration of darkness, on the other hand, leans toward a classic depiction of the shadow archetype: “Listen, the darkness is a reality which would change me or I would starve in it. I can’t shape it. I can only enter and submit and let myself be accommodated” (187-188). If we embrace the darkness and search in it deeply, Catherine says, “We will find creatures like memories waiting alive.” She tells Speer, “We are lost in the deep inner veins of some sleeping beast through whose heavy blood we wade. And there will be no escape for us, ever” (188-189). Memories flowing through time are inescapable, and in the hands of a writer, become immortal through the written word.

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Last Mountain Dancer: HardEarned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life

In Snakehunter Kinder dished out symbolism and deep themes—serious coming-of-age fiction at its best. Last Mountain Dancer, originally published by Carroll and Graf in 2004, veers in a totally different direction with his rollicking journey through his birth state collecting its most outrageous myths and legends while resolving his own midlife crisis and poking around at his roots. It’s the story of the famous and infamous people who have called the Mountain State home, including its most infamous outlaw author. Last Mountain Dancer is an impossible book to condense into the classic author’s elevator pitch to an agent, but Kinder attempts this with his mother, using a dash rather than quotation marks as a style device:

—It is, I told my old momma and did a stiff shot of Dickel straight,—a do-not-go-gently, grumpy, grouchy, corny coming-of-old-age story, on one level anyway. It is also a forlorn, tear-jerky, but essentially true and finally foot-stomping country-song-of-myself. I want it to be a big jukebox of a book, sans any fancy, Yankee, outsider sentiments such as irony or understatement.

—Well that certainly should be a bestseller, Mom said, and laughed. . . .

—It’s about how the past lives on in the present, and the present lives in the unspeakable future, and the future lives in the inescapable past. (209)

Since the words myth, mythic, and legendary appear frequently throughout the book, perhaps it is best described as the collected myths and legends of West Virginia as explored by one legendary outlaw author. Kinder claims the book is “mostly true.”

Because his life is in a tailspin, Kinder moves into his sister’s home in the fictional town of Billville in the southern part of the state. He is on sabbatical from his position as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, to “look around for [his] lost sense of self” and experience what he hopes will be “a honytonk healing of the soul” (24). On this journey, he explores key incidents from his youth. Unsurprisingly, undescended testicles and the incident with the bully and the coach who paddles Kinder appear early in this memoir with more detail than Kinder included in Snakehunter. But other memories surface. He rediscovers two sides of his young self: Science Boy and Shadow Boy. Science Boy hangs out with a kid who has a telescope and they study the sky at night. But that side loses out to Shadow Boy after he moves to a new town:

As James Dean playing a character named Jim Stark discovered painfully in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, it is difficult to be a new boy in a new town. A new boy is a shadow boy. One must prove one’s shadow self all over again. One must prove that one is cool. . . .One must prove that one is tough and dangerous and wild and willing to live one’s life like holy lightning. (29)

So off young Kinder goes to the notorious town of Cinder Bottom with a carload of drunk boys in search for forbidden love in a black whorehouse. He French-kisses a (maybe) twelve-year old mulatto girl, demands to have sex for free, and turns her pimp over in his wheelchair. By the time his sidekick Toby is done telling this story, it becomes “the biggest, wildest, most mythic adventure that had unfolded in the whole county that night” (31). The “Outlaw Boy” chapter explains how Kinder gets off from his post-high-school-graduation summer of robbing bars with Morris Hackett. It is 1959, and Kinder is freshman at West Virginia Institute of Technology when Hackett is arrested. Kinder faces charges for robbery. Some of this material also appears in Kinder’s second novel, Silver Ghost.

In addition to remembering incidents in his past, Kinder dwells on an ill-advised affair he is having with a much younger woman, and also shares engaging stories of encounters with friends and family. Many of the best tales involve Kinder’s brother-in-law, such as his thirty-year-long “mythic hunt” for a Thanksgiving turkey—which he finally bags. He reckons it only cost about three thousand dollars, a “conservative estimate of what he had blown over the years on hunting gear and guns” (333). Another tickler is when his brother-in-law arranges for Kinder to take part in the hometown Fourth of July Parade by fastening “FAMOUS ORTHUR” banners to his yellow Caddy and cruising around and around the courthouse block eight times behind the marching band, “waving and smiling and just generally shedding beneficent, magnanimous grace like a movie star or some queen mother” (81).

Beyond the personal stories, Kinder delves deeply into local lore. Not every West Virginian Kinder writes about is an oddball hillbilly or wingnut. The opening chapters list famous people from the state: busty actress Dagmar, Jerry West of basketball fame, game show host Peter Marshall, comedians Soupy Sales and Don Knotts, airman extraordinaire Chuck Yeager, and Long-time Senate Majority Leader and King of Pork Barrel Politics Robert C. Byrd. Kinder admits at the outset that most West Virginians are “regular, respectable, upstanding, hard-working, everyday folks just like the folks you can find in any part of America. . . . as bland and boring and ordinary as anybody else” (xii). But bland and boring don’t make good stories, so he sets out to uncover the “legendary mountain dancers, moonshiners, stupendous marijuana farmers, snakehandlers, blood-feudists, mystery midgets, mothmen, horny space aliens” (xii).

The lasting value of this book lies in Kinder’s extraordinary exploration of West Virginia’s past and present. Intriguing accounts range from his visit to a 168-foot waterfall inside Cass Cave to recounting Indian legends of how the water of White Sulphur Springs got its smell. One of the funniest tales describes a Thanksgiving Day visit to “the Unbelievable Mystery Hole—an experience that will haunt you the rest of your natural life” (404).  The laws of gravity are suspended within this cave near Ansted. Kinder and his wife “were dizzy and goofy” after enjoying that amusing adventure together. Unique aspects of state history are included, such as the town of Thurmond, where a high-stakes poker game continued non-stop for fifteen years. The town was once known as “The Dodge City of West Virginia.” Even though I was awarded the Golden Horseshoe for my knowledge of West Virginia history, these are not things I learned in school.

West Virginia’s tragedies are also a significant part of the book. Kinder visited Point Pleasant, where the Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River in 1967 killing forty-seven people. In the aftermath all sorts of stories arose. Some people claimed Mothmen had been seen circling in the sky. Others said “a giant blinking penis” shot into the night sky, accompanied by a sonic boom; and still others claimed to see “an oriental-looking dwarf dressed all in black” scurrying away from the disaster scene (228). Kinder also visited Matewan, where the showdown between striking miners and Baldwin-Felts detectives—basically thugs and hired guns—took place in 1920. The showdown has all the elements of a great tale. Gunfire in the streets. Heroes and Villains. Rich versus Poor. Courtroom trials. And maybe forbidden romance resulting in cold-blooded murder. Another tragedy Kinder relates is the construction of the Hawks Nest tunnel, resulting in the deaths of 476 workers and over a thousand more sickened with silicosis.

A book about West Virginia folklore wouldn’t be complete without an account of famous feuds, like that of the Hatfields and McCoys, or without a judicious sprinkling of ghost stories. Kinder delivers many, including the Lost Girl of Grafton, the Ghost of Lost Hand at Prickett’s Fort, and the Drowned Ladies of Cheat Lake. He even shares a few ghost tales from his own family.

The book’s title refers to Jessico White, a mountain dancer “as mythic as the mountains” (450). A documentary, “Dancing Outlaw,” was made about Jessico’s life. His father was a famous dancer who was shot and killed in front of his own home, with Jessico at his side. Jessico hit by a ricochet, but survives after hearing the voice of Elvis admonishing him that he had to carry on in his daddy’s footsteps. The voice tells him to “get up out of that ditch and get off them drugs…because now that your daddy is an angel tap-dancing up in heaven on them streets of gold, you are the last mountain dancer down here on the face of this old Earth” (247).  Jessico turns his life around afterward, so much so, that the postmistress tells Kinder “she couldn’t even recall the last time she even heard about Jesco being in any old shooting or cutting or robbery or even being put under arrest for drunk driving or simply for beating the shit out of Norman Jean when she begged for it” (256).  As in Snakehunter, the dialogue often proves funny. When Kinder mentions John Lennon, the Elvis-obsessed Jessico asks, “Who?”  Kinder replies that Lennon is just this dead English guy. Clearly there are differences in their exposure to the outside world and education levels. Yet the most intriguing aspect of Kinder’s encounters with Jessico is the similarities Kinder notices in their character:

What I imagined I could see in the black bottomless pits of those eyes was a configuration of anger and madness and hurt and fear and suspicion and a childlike capacity for sadness and wonder and loneliness, and a flicker of what might best be described as tenderness, and shining somewhere back in those crazy eyes was a childlike capacity for fun, and a capacity for fame, and a childlike capacity for spastic violence so vast it was plumb scary. They were eyes that I fancied reflected my own. (258)

Not only the darkness glimmering within united the two. Jessico’s obsessive interest in Elvis parallels Kinder’s interest in James Dean; and they both have painful relationships with their fathers.

Near the end of the book, Kinder confesses he has “always aspired to be the Jerry Lee Lewis of American Letters” (452). Since Jerry Lee was known as rock and roll’s first great wild man, the comparison is apt. Kinder was just wild enough to end Last Mountain Dancer with words suggested to him on a dare. Fellow writer Lee Maynard challenged him to end the book with the phrase “mythic dick.” Kinder comes up with this final description of his journey:

I whizzed and watched the high beams of that truck advance through the thickening fog toward where I holy-hollered along with Hound Dog at the top of my lungs, and did a sort of staggery tragic-comic two-step behind my vehicle’s flashing red lights, just a poor old mostly imaginary rhetorical being dancing with his mythic dick. (453)

The ending is fitting, since Kinder devoted many passages to his testicles and sex life along with relating all the glorious, outrageous myths and legends of the beautiful Mountain State. The writer and the mountains that formed him are mythic indeed.


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