Book Review : Birds of a Feather Flock Together in Appalachia
The Sixkiller Chronicles by Paul Hemphill (Macmillan: $16.95)
In dramatic literature and the popular media, the mountain people of southern Appalachia have been generally either ridiculed or idealized. In both the novel and movie versions of James Dickey’s “Deliverance,” native mountaineers were depicted as hormonal disasters. In the popular TV show, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the alleged ignorance and cultural peculiarities of mountain people were good for many a canned laugh. While in more recent screen and television productions of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Dollmaker,” to live in southern Appalachia, it seemed, was to be inherently virtuous and simple. In that archaic, mythically uncomplicated region of America, the complexity of a culture and the people who give it shape have been reduced to stereotypes and one-dimensionality.
Paul Hemphill, like fellow Atlanta writer James Dickey, lives within spitting distance of the Southern mountains. But unlike Dickey, Hemphill doesn’t spit on the region; in a sympathetic, folksy narrative that harbors supremely good intentions, Hemphill has grasped many of the essentials and much of the cussed complication of this elusive, contemporary culture.
Hemphill’s novel spans three generations in telling the story of a western North Carolina family and the land called Sixkiller that the family has owned for nearly two centuries. Bluejay Clay, a country music star who makes regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, is the family patriarch and towering figure in the story. After his wife dies in childbirth, Bluejay raises a son named Jaybird, passing on a legacy of love of land, of independence and of good-hearted women.
Always Raising Hell
“Pa said he started calling me Bluejay because I was always raising hell and butting into other people’s business,” Bluejay tells an admirer. Whether in fighting a developer’s attempt to make a ski resort out of Sixkiller, or taking on slick operators in the Nashville music scene, Bluejay is well-named. But Hemphill avoids idealized portraiture--his hero is often vain about his music, painfully chauvinistic toward the women who marry into the clan and overbearing in his desire for his son and grandson to follow outmoded family traditions. A fierce advocate of his own independence, not until his old age can Bluejay allow others theirs.
The contradictions and excesses in Bluejay’s character cripple the wings of his only son, Jaybird, who marries unwisely, then falls from prominence as a Nashville record producer into bitter divorce and dereliction. After losing custody of his son, Jaybird meets Mo Barksdale, a burnt-out country singer who performs in a honky-tonk. The blossoming of their romance, Jaybird’s redemption and his reconciliation with his father are dramatized with wry humor, tenderness and a subtle understanding of the dynamics of pride and forgiveness in the mountain culture.
With the story of Robin, Jaybird’s son, Hemphill is less effective, in part because this Harvard med student is less intimately drawn. The major decisions of Robin’s young life--to repudiate his country-clubbish mother’s values, to forgo wealth and status for the Southern backwoods--seem too easily made, a contrivance serving the author’s purpose to close the dramatic circle, bringing another generation of Clays into the family fold at Sixkiller. Dialogue between Robin and his attorney wife, a Vermonter named Meg, is often implausibly breezy and expositional in the manner of “Love Story.”
There is nary a hint of the underlying tensions that one would expect from a decision to base a cross-cultural marriage in Appalachia. “Well now,” Meg says when Robin returns from another long night at Boston City Hospital. “Dr. Kildare, I presume?” “More like Hawkeye Pierce,” Robin replies. “Okay, barrister,” he continues, conveniently revealing his wife’s profession to the reader.
Devotion to Sixkiller
The book is not without other flaws. What is now called “country” music is treated as if it is the original folk music of the region, when, in fact, traditional fiddle tunes and ballads came first. Much is made of the family’s devotion to Sixkiller, but Hemphill conveys little of the specificity of the place, thus failing to dramatize why this piece of land means so much. Interludes detailing the region’s history may educate the reader but tend to break the flow of the narrative, and, when served up by a suddenly erudite Bluejay, strain his character’s credibility. And a hiply irreverent, polysyllabic Cherokee Indian character who shares the family homestead would find a happier domain in Tom McGuane territory.
Yet Hemphill’s central drama of a man trying to raise his son, preserve his land, express his values in his music and ensure their continuity in succeeding generations remains as potent as good corn liquor. This novel has sweep, spunk, characters as richly Appalachian as a wine-colored fiddle and a rare, relaxed charm.