The Dead Generations
by Jared Hohl, recommended by The Agriculture Reader
EDITOR’S NOTE by Justin Taylor and Jeremy Schmall
For as long as we’ve known him — since the mid-aughts, when we were all students together at The New School M.F.A. program — Jared Hohl’s been among the most interesting writers we’ve known: a doom-minded expert in the special weirdness that seethes beneath the pasty skin of the Midwest. (A native Iowan, he makes a mean beer can chicken.) In “The Dead Generations,” a crew of crop duster pilots “[declare] a whiskey front and immediately set about pissing the day away.” General breeze-shooting turns tense when Bob Honeycutt, a geriatric swinger, boasts to the group of how easy it is to seduce a married southern woman, infuriating Pete Shanks, who is married to one. A bit later (the whiskey front still squarely over the airport), two pilots take one of the planes out for a drunken joyride, triggering some unexpected existentialism in the one named Keith.
A bit of history: Jared Hohl’s first published short story was called “Fraise, Menthe, et Poivre 1978.” It appeared in an anthology Justin edited, The Apocalypse Reader (Thunder’s Mouth, 2007), and it was singled out for praise in literally every single review that the book received. A short story of Hohl’s appeared in The Agriculture Reader #2, and this excerpt from his novel-in-progress — then called The Invaders’ Retreat, now called The Dead Generations — appeared in AGR5. A bit of good news: after almost a decade of hard and loving labor, Hohl finished his novel earlier this year. This is no small cause for celebration, and we toast his achievement here.
“The Dead Generations” comes from a line in the Easter Proclamation of 1916, in Hohl’s words “a document that was meant to assert Irish independence and is now a decorative facsimile featured in a thousand fake Irish Pubs from Cleveland to Tokyo.” A fitting title for a novel about obsession and authenticity, addiction and Internet death videos, the rough tug-of-war between ideology and human agency, and the aesthetics and ethics of tourism and, of course, of fake Irish pubs.
Jared Hohl is a wonderful writer. “Wonderful” in the old sense, as in “fills you with wonder,” in the same archaic vein that “awful” once meant “fills you with awe.” We find ourselves no less awed (and thrilled!) today than we were years ago to have the privilege of reading such fleet electric matchless prose, and the honor of presenting it to the world. Dark, funny, grotesque, astonishing, full of swerves and genius, Hohl’s work scarcely requires — may in fact not even want — the heaps of praise we pile at its feet. So let us simply say that Hohl’s work exemplifies everything The Agriculture Reader stands for and strives for: the uncompromising, unpretentious, staggering, original, unknown. If it gets you, then you get us, and it is good to know you, friend.
Justin Taylor and Jeremy Schmall
Editors, The Agriculture Reader
The Dead Generations
The Dead Generations
by Jared Hohl, recommended by The Agriculture Reader
Early in the gray morning, the crop dusters gathered in the pilot’s lounge of the Riperose Municipal Airport and saw a big summer storm approaching. It swirled on the radar in pixelated green, moving east across the image of Iowa. The crop dusters declared a whiskey front and immediately set about pissing the day away.
The bi-fold hydraulic door of hangar ten opened with a de-pressurizing whoosh of air. Keith Custer, the young on-site groundskeeper, went over and turned on the big overhead lights. One of the baby-faced southern pilots brought in a brand new grill.
“These Iowans can’t cook for shit,” he said. “No offense Keith.”
“You’re probably right,” Keith told him.
They ate boudin sausage and drank beer inside the hangar as the rain came down. Keith nursed a bottle and tried to look busy sweeping with a janitor’s broom. Big Doyle Fowkes had the cowling off his plane. He was in there with wrenches, covered in grime.
“Damn, Doyle, you still gotta work on that piece of shit plane of yours?”
“Poor sonofabitch. You’re looking like a pile of greasy rags.”
“Or something that’d turn up on the end of Honeycutt’s dick.”
“I’m clean as cotton,” said Bob Honeycutt, the sixty-three year old wife swapper who lived in the off season in a place called Romance, Arkansas.
“How you ever gonna wash all that shit off in time to make it to the bar?”
“Maybe Old Cotton over there can give him a rubdown.”
“Fuck y’all,” said Honeycutt with a smile.
Later, Honeycutt got to talking about a secret down-south sex club. He spoke about how married women would show up alone sometimes and how you could get a married southern woman to do just about anything you wanted her to if you smiled and were polite and gentle and wore an expensive suit while you were chatting her up. He said he and his wife had taken on plenty of married women in their time. He said he’d had them doing things their husbands couldn’t even dream up.
“Changed them inside and out. Touched them in a deep way,” Honeycutt said, licking his thin, wet lips. Some of the younger guys were laughing. The crop dusters with rings on their fingers were sucking on their beers or trying to change the subject.
“If an old codger like you ever did anything with my wife I’d string you up and kill you,” said Pete Shanks. He was forty-something, so short he needed the help of a little plastic booster box to step up onto the wing of his own airplane. Pete was wearing an overly fancy western shirt that was faded in places, with great curls of loose stitching blowing in the occasional penetrating gust of wind.
“Well,” said Honeycutt. “I don’t intend to come between a man and his wife, but sometimes I can’t help myself.” He ended this one with a wink toward the younger guys who let out big laughs, the kind that went on too long and were meant to help encourage a fight.
“It’s all just a bunch of bullshit anyway,” said Shanks. “He’s at some ranch in the boondocks chasing sheep with his pecker out. Then he goes and gets drunk and calls it his sex club. HA!” He looked around the room, but no one else laughed. Some of the guys made faces at each other. The awkward silence just rolled on. This was routine for Shanks. Doyle felt sorry for the man in about a hundred different ways.
Honeycutt was leaning back in his folding chair with a bottle of beer held loosely around the neck, just as calm and comfortable as can be.
“You want to believe it’s a story that’s your prerogative. But there’s another chapter you might be interested in knowing, Shanks. That’s the one about how you’re just the type of guy whose wife shows up to the club. Kind of guy who’s all tense and worried about things and doesn’t know how to relax and enjoy all the varieties of life.”
Pete stepped toward him and pointed with the hand that held his beer. “You think you can tell me about my own wife? That what you think, Bob?”
“I’m just talking about women, Shanks. I’m talking about life. There are a lot of pleasures out there to be discovered by the sensual man. A lot of forbidden things to try.”
“Just what the hell do you mean by that?”
Honeycutt looked at the others. “He’s a bit slow, isn’t he?” He leaned forward. “I like the taste and touch of another man’s wife, Shanks. I don’t know how to make it any more clear than that.”
Shanks smashed his bottle on the hangar floor and wide-stepped it over to Honeycutt like he’d been practicing it in his hotel room the night before.
“Listen here you sonofabitch!” His face was red and his fists were clenched at his sides. A white piece of plastic was beginning to poke through the frayed Aztec printing on his collar.
Honeycutt was still slouched in his chair. He waited a couple seconds before he looked up at Shanks.
“All right,” he said. “I’m listening.”
Somehow this threw Shanks for a loop. He must have thought stomping over to Honeycutt would be statement enough. He stammered around for awhile looking all over the place like he hoped a miracle would come zooming in and rescue him. He was shaking a fist in the air when he finally got some words out.
“You keep your hands off my wife!”
It echoed throughout the entire hangar and a big boom of thunder sounded directly afterwards. The rain crackled like static on the cement outside. Honeycutt broke into a smile and soon all the pilots went into an uproar. Shanks turned in a circle before he understood what was happening. His anger was big, but it couldn’t compete with guys bending over out of breath and tears coming down their cheeks. Shanks looked around and smiled and shook his head.
“Damn,” he said. He even laughed a little himself. “Goddamn,” he said again. Honeycutt gave him a friendly pat on the back. Shanks stepped away quick. “I’m gonna go take a piss.”
When Shanks went into the bathroom Honeycutt leaned forward and said, “Hell, I don’t know, maybe I have had his wife.” And then he laughed and so did a few of the others and just after that something flew from clear across the hangar and hit him square in the mouth. He stood up quick, blinking in confusion, and then he leaned over and parted his lips and a whole river of blood poured out.
“Jesus!” said one of the young guys.
“Now that was just one step too far!” said Shanks. “How much do you expect a man to take?!”
Honeycutt was standing there with blood going all down his chin. He looked at Shanks and put his hands on his hips.
“Had to resort to violence, didn’t you? Because you couldn’t handle it any other way and because your mind weren’t quick enough to figure out what was really happening, what’s always been happening. You done lost and been lost this whole time and you ain’t never gonna recover. Not in your whole damn life are you ever gonna recover. A motherfucking hothead like you.”
The words came out surprisingly clear from between his red teeth. He spat a blob of blood onto the cement floor.
“Talk about a man’s wife like that,” said Shanks. “In front of a whole group of people!” He stood over near the bathroom, trying to remain angry, but anyone could tell he was shook up by the sight of all that blood.
Some of the guys were hanging out near Shanks and the rest were beside Honeycutt, but there wasn’t going to be any fight. Doyle went and got a handful of paper towels and gave them to Honeycutt to hold on his mouth. Keith mopped the blood from the floor.
“I got to go to the emergency room now and get my lip stitched because you’ve got half a goddamn brain,” said Honeycutt.
“You provoked this whole thing right here,” said Shanks.
Honeycutt shook his head and went out of the hangar.
“He better not smash up my truck or anything like that,” said Shanks.
“He ain’t gonna smash your truck,” Doyle told him.
“Let’s go to Keo’s,” said one of the young guys. That was the bar they always went to after work. They all grabbed beers on their way out of the hangar.
“I’m going home to my wife,” said Shanks.
“You better get there before Honeycutt does,” said one of the guys.
Shanks didn’t do anything. He didn’t have the anger for it anymore.
Keith and Lotto kept drinking even after all the others had left. They sat in lawn chairs outside of Keith’s trailer, watching the empty beers pile up.
Lotto’s real name was Richard Garff. He was a mechanic and he was nineteen years old. He’d won five thousand dollars two years ago on a scratch-off ticket and spent most of it with the Snap-On man, buying a toolbox that cost so much he couldn’t afford any new tools for the thing. The crop dusters called him Toolbox for awhile, but within weeks he’d hit another scratch-off jackpot, this one for two thousand. First he got a ratchet set and then, later that night, he blew the rest at the strip club over in Coralville. After that everyone just called him Lotto.
He was skinny, but strong. Lotto drove up to work in a pickup each day even though he didn’t have a license. When the Co-ops pulled in with their big commercial chemical trucks, Lotto would hop into the cab and drive them to the far end of the airport’s ramp where he parked them in a long line. Somehow he knew how to work the power take-off switches in any kind of truck, could find the fuel shut-off valve in a split second, wasn’t intimidated by any of it. He would taxi the airplanes wherever they needed to go and could fly them as well.
“C’mon,” said Lotto. “I want to show you something.”
Keith followed him out to the Air Tractor in a daze. He knew Lotto was going to try and fly the thing, but he didn’t try and stop him. Already it felt like a kind of prophecy. He even helped him undo the tie-downs.
“It’s a taildragger, but I think I got it,” said Lotto. “Get on up there.”
Keith climbed into the cockpit and Lotto squeezed in beside him and pulled the hatch shut. It wasn’t meant for two people, but they were both small enough to fit. The air was hot and stale. Everything was quiet in there.
“This doesn’t seem like the best idea,” Keith said.
“Course it does,” said Lotto and he fired the ignition.
The engine seemed louder than normal. Oh well, thought Keith, oh fucking well. Lotto pushed the throttle until the plane was speeding down the runway. He jammed on the rudder pedals like they were stuck or he was having trouble keeping the thing centered. The beacon light flashed messages at Keith. He saw a ball of fire and metal at the end of the runway. Thoughts zoomed through his head just before the wheels left the ground, but he couldn’t make sense of them. Everything was muddled and mushed except for his heart which rat-a-tat-ed to make his whole body shake. Up into the air they went, like some kind of nightmare.
“Damn this thing is loose!” Lotto hollered. He jerked the stick back and forth to show Keith how crappy it was. He flew low because it felt more natural that way. He thought about those kinds of things. Lotto felt like a bird when he buzzed the shadowed treetops. The way he moved in that plane was just like an eagle looking for something to kill. He’d once shot a bald eagle from the sky with a high-powered rifle, but he never told anyone about it. Thirty aught six. Ka-boosh! And later that same day he sprayed a calf’s brains all over the pasture, its ear tag twitching in all that red jell-o muck. Lotto had killed tons of things in private. It was what he liked to do. In Missouri, he knew the caves. He could escape to the darkness of old rock, places that no one else knew about, even the people who owned the property. He’d get there by boat, creeping along the muddy banks. He was invisible at night. He knew his way through every forest.
Keith shut his eyes. He sat crammed into that cockpit, squeezing his corner of the seat. This was what it felt like when young people died. He tried to shrug his whole life away. The moment lasted forever. For awhile it seemed like maybe they were going to make it, but when Lotto finally went around the loop and lined up with the runway Keith took it all back. He prepared for the engine to come through the instrument panel, cutting him in half, a split-second feeling of lightness before his torso and arms and head were ground to wet meat under the collapsing shape of the plane.
He spent the rest of the night in the trailer on his computer glued to a gore site, gawking at uncensored photos of crash victims and suicides, the destroyed, the murdered. He drank and clicked through a thousand images. Every picture was him. It didn’t matter what he was looking at, could be some dead guy laid out in a ruptured mangle of machined metal and torn rubber or some blue-faced teen girl strung up in a closet. It was Keith’s head mashed open on Highway One, revealing the liquefied brain inside, nostrils split wide, a muffin icing dollop of yellow fat squeezed from an armpit gash. He was the slaughtered Mexican informant, all limbs removed, something mannequin about him, a Hollywood prop with a clenched hand shoved in his mouth, eyes slippered shut and powdered with a grey coating of mysterious dust. Keith was the alley jumble of body parts, wet and shining. He was the blackened fly-ridden corpse three weeks in the rice paddy. Keith was the video of the press conference suicide: the suddenly slackened body, the vanished magic, the fluttered heart pushing out its final run of blood.