The South Is Sufficiently Haunted

J. D. Wilkes’s debut, The Vine That Ate the South, is the definition of a “tall tale”

A journey into the woods in search of self-knowledge — or simply a reclamation of lost wonder — The Vine That Ate the South is one tall tale. Digging deep into the mythology of the South, J. D. Wilkes’s novel follows the unnamed narrator and his friend, Carver Canute, into the haunted western Kentucky forest known as The Deadenin’ where they seek out an urban rural legend: an elderly couple swallowed by a runaway strain of kudzu plant which has mounted them aloft in a ghastly ongoing display.

Along the way, they encounter any number of backwoods oddities, but can these match up with the bits of rumors and imagination with which they regale each other? In the South, Wilkes suggests, it doesn’t matter. Telling tales of doubtful truthfulness is a way of life in Marshall County, Kentucky even as there are also great real-life wonders to be found there. As such, Vine is one long tall tale built up of any number of smaller ones and where the fibbing leaves off and objective reality begins remains a moot point since as the narrator reminds us, “Collecting folktales and courting ghosts is just another way for the rural-lonely to stay sane.”

In this particular rural setting, there is no one lonelier than our narrator whose father, having died under mysterious circumstances when the narrator was a boy, has left him isolated and unsure of his manhood. Now in his 30s, he retains lingering daddy issues. “Between [my mom’s] smothering and [my dad’s] absence,” he tells us, “I was, and still am, lost when it comes to being a young man.” This lack of manly guidance has especially hurt him in his specific environment, a Southern rural town that has certain traditional standards of masculinity. As such, the narrator led a sheltered childhood in which he sought perpetual solitude and which has made him ill-fit in his world. This sense of inadequacy has continued into his adult life, fueled by the loss of his girlfriend to his arch-rival, the boorish Stoney Kingston.

Wilkes’s book is chock full of vivid, hallucinatory bits, odd moments of humor, and haunted environments, with the forest itself a classic moody setting, but the book gets its real charge from its complex consideration of the narrator’s views on manhood and the South — the two being intimately related. Throughout the novel, the narrator simultaneously bemoans his own truncated manhood (with the bear-like Carver as his foil) and delivers jeremiads about the diminished state of his home region. He dates this latter decline to 1927 when, he says, agrarianism began to give way to employment in “the System.”

The result is that “the old homestead ways of life have ceased” and, “along with it, many a manly conquest has followed suit, replaced with virtual adventure, overstuffed furniture, air-conditioning, and TV dinners” and on, into the internet age. The narrator, interestingly, never seems to question the assumption that the type of masculinity that he craves is a false goal, preferring to lament the circumstances that have made him, by this standard, inadequate and have done the same to Southern society in general.

His journey to the woods, then, is a double journey into manhood. One of his goals in going is to even the score with Stoney Kingston — who claims that he has already seen the kudzu couple — and to win back his girl. Another is to dig deep into the region he calls home and, by so doing, uncover the past since, as he is well aware, “In every nook and cranny, in any direction on God’s green earth, there is history to be learned”. In western Kentucky, in particular, this history is fraught and the narrator is quick to acknowledge the horrors of Native American genocide and slavery.

He also finds nobility in this past, particularly when set against the present day. For example, late in his journey, he notes the “barn-quilts adorn[ing] the old folks’ outbuildings. Perhaps they use these hex symbols to ward off the evil spirits of Gen-X sloth and Baby Boomer decadence. They were, after all, nailed there by ‘The Greatest Generation.” By pinpointing a generation that existed well after slavery and well before recent loathed age groups, the narrator finds a safe spot in the past to idealize. “What they had,” he continues, “was a life packed with hard-earned meaning, a life more in keeping with the Bronze Age than with this new so-called ‘information age.’”

This disconnect from his present time on both the personal and generational level provides the narrative with a certain tension that raises Wilkes’s book above the level of a simple entertaining trip into a folksy fantastical setting. The narrator’s confusion over how exactly he fits in with his immediate world (which extends to his complicated relationship with that other absent father, God), marks him as a flawed and compelling figure. If Wilkes himself sometimes seems caught up in that same confusion, confirming rather than questioning some of his narrator’s less constructive notions, then he at least understands the complexity of the question. In his novel, the South comes across as sufficiently haunted: by God, by slavery, and, not least, by the ghosts, literal and figurative, of a region with a very tangled history.

Gary Lutz is a Master

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