Tuesday, October 9, 2012

REVIEW: Jeff Kerr's Hillbilly Rich, A Slim Gem

I remember a talk I attended once while folks were trying to teach me how to write better called “Slim Gems”.  That was the name of the lecture these two fine writers were giving.  They talked about The Catcher in the Rye and a dozen other titles most people fail to realize are comparatively small in length to other books but shine like new pennies, word for word.

I suppose they hoped to show us you don’t have to write six-hundred pages to say what you mean and mean what you say, and say it well, at that.

I don’t remember seeing Jeff Kerr there, but they could well have been talking about his set of stories, Hillbilly Rich.

Kerr, a native of Eastern Kentucky living for the time being in the world, offers up six stories and an essay in this collection from Blue Dixie Publications.  In the best of them, Kerr shows a knack for observation that couldn’t be more precise to the people and the region he’s writing about, such as these few passages from “The Red Wolf”:

When my wife Roberta took my boy Dan, I lost interest in things.  I still went to work and supervised the convicts as they picked up trash along the interstate, but I did the job like I was underwater.

I sat on the loveseat looking down at a Time-Life history book on Indians.  They had pictures of all the famous ones: Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise.  All of them staring defiantly back at the camera.

I took a good hit off of my Jim Beam which I was drinking straight up from one of Dan’s Mighty Morphine Rangers glasses.  I felt the burn of the bourbon as I stared back in the eyes of them dead Indians.”

As the back cover says, “Red Wolf” is a story in which a man “sees the wildness and freedom he once had in the form of a red wolf”.  But more than that, Kerr gleams brightest in the tiny details that live inside the overall story.  Dan’s glass, for instance, grounds the reader in the protagonist’s hurt, places a vivid picture, a flash of anguish in the same way it often comes to any of us in our daily lives.

The ability to convey this emotion, or any emotion in such a short space, is something a writer cannot learn outright.  As with Kerr, it must already exist somewhere inside the writer and the writing then provides the lightning bolt as a means of delivery.

My favorite of the stories was “Primitive”, an exploration of outsiders, outsider art, servitude, integrity, and, well, I could go on but the thrilling aspect of this story is how much is packed within it without breaking the delicate shell of what Gardener called the “fictive dream”.

Will Ramey, an old, retired miner courting Black Lung, heard a voice as a young man while under the mountain, the voice of the Lord telling him to “make pictures to tell the truth of the Lord about times past and times to come.”

Over the years, the pictures would come to Ramey’s mind and he’d push them aside, tending instead to his family and other obligations. 

Kerr’s telling of Ramey’s struggles in the mines are worth a review in and of itself, but the moment that is pitch-perfect comes when the old miner gives himself over to his most recent vision, the one that finally finds him creating astounding works of art painted on “the surface of old gourds, slabs of wood, chucks and of coal”, works that eventually find him under the thumb of a fast-talking Northerner who visits and offers to “represent” him in selling his art.

And, oh, that vision, I tell you, flock, raised hairs on my arms.  Without hesitation I’m including a good portion of that full-bodied paragraph here:

One day I was out dumping a bucket of furnace ash onto the ash wagon out back by the car shed.  I closed my eyes shut and saw beautiful gardens of flowers I’d never seen in these hills.  Flowers that swooped and opened like great pink and blue tubas.  Flowers as long as train cars golden and shining with their own inner sun.  These flowers reached towards the clearest, cleanest blue sky I’d ever seen.  Animals of all kinds gathered hide to hair of each other and not a tooth or claw was raised.  People naked like children new to the world were smiling and walking among the animals and strange flowers.”

One last thing.  Buy it.  Seriously.  Buy it.

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