18 February 2010

Madison Jones, An Exile (1967)

In this fourth novel, Madison Jones continues to prove that he's found a clearer way to express himself than he did in his first two novels. This, once more, is about a good man who succumbs to temptation and embroils himself and others in a web of violence. It is a story of the deadly power of sex, and of moonshiners.

In Jones's first novel, The Innocent, Duncan is lured by his alter ego, the moonshiner Aaron, into a nightmare world of casual violence and self-destruction. In An Exile, Sheriff Tawes - hitherto a model of virtue and strict observer of the protocols of his office - is tempted to waive an infraction of the law by the femme fatale Alma McCain, a young woman from a family of moonshiners who shows her gratitude to the sheriff in kind, and as her sexual favors continue, this fat, ageing man becomes sucked into a whirlpool of deceit and self-deception.

The sheriff's marriage had been dying before Alma arrived, and in one scene, in which the sheriff takes his wife and child on an outing in a vain attempt at revivification, the narrator says: 'The really dismal part was that he again had tricked himself, had arranged this stunt in the idle belief that he really intended to mend what he had broken.'

But the marriage is not all that is broken. There is another allusion to the destruction caused by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the sheriff shows his daughter Sybil the lake created by them:

'"You see all that water out there?"

Sybil glanced across the glittering lake.

"That wasn't there when I was a boy - before they built the big dam. All that was just a big valley, with farms. And a creek, Big Sandy Creek. That's where I used to fish. My home was just about a mile up the lake from here - that way."

"Is it still there?" she said.

"The house? Oh, no. They tore it down before the water rose. I wish I had a picture of it to show you. It was a big old clapboard house with-"

"Don't get your father started on that." Hazel interrupted in a voice hard and dry with finality. It produced not only a hush but a feeling of severance, like a shoot cleanly snipped off by shears.'

It's that 'feeling of severance' which is so interesting. Something has been severed in the sheriff's relationship with his wife (which refers us back to his 'mend[ing] what he had broken'), and in more ways than one Alma will severe things definitively. But the severance here also relates to the way the South has been severed from its roots, and the building of the lake is a symbol of this.

As the sheriff's relationship with Alma continues and he continues to keep quiet about the McCain family's moonshining activities, he stands between the moonshiners and the law, now (im)properly represented by his very odd porn magazine-reading deputy Hunnicut. As events spiral out of control, the sheriff seeks a divorce, his deputy is murdered by the moonshiners, Alma reveals that her 'relationship' with the sheriff is a farce, and the sheriff is stabbed to death by Alma's father Flint in the end. This is very powerful writing.

Jones's friend Flannery O'Connor was no longer able to sing praises about his writing, as she'd been dead for three years. However, here is a laudatory quotation from Allan Tate, published on the back flap:

'Madison Jones is our Southern Thomas Hardy: his small-town and backwoods characters are Everyman and Everywoman. I find in Sheriff Tawes both the dignity and the human weakness of the Mayor of Casterbridge. The plot of An Exile has a classical simplicity; Mr Jones develops it with great skill. I consider Madison Jones one of the most important contemporary American writers.'

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