Early promise – review of Morning Crafts by Tito Perdue

EARLY PROMISE

Morning Crafts, Tito Perdue, Arktos, London, 2012, 163 pp

Way back in prehistory – 1991, or thereabouts – a promising Alabaman author started to register on readers’ radars, thanks to lambent reviews from Northern litterateurs surprised to discover that there was at least one Southron who could not only write, but write as though an amphetamined-up James Joyce was simultaneously charioteering Jonathan Swift, Flannery O’Connor and John Kennedy Toole.

Lee, Tito Perdue’s story of the deeply misanthropic Lee Pefley’s flailing progress through flaccid late-modern America, execrating and excreting as he lashes and limps, displayed “magically evocative descriptive powers, pungent wit and [an] iconoclastic point of view”, marvelled Publishers’ Weekly. Its author, the New York Press opined of a subsequent book, “should certainly be considered among the most important American writers of the early 21st century”. Even the New York Times Book Review noted that there was a “vitriolic and hallucinatory” stranger in town. Educated eyes swivelled South, breaths were inhaled, another Yellowhammer breakthrough (the new Harper Lee?) into the East Coast big-time was eagerly expected…

And then something happened – or, rather, did not happen. The author kept producing equally dashing novels about Lee at different stages of life, pre-life and after-life. These were published by well-known firms, and attracted top-drawer admirers, like Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming –

Tito Perdue has written some of the best satire on contemporary America, and he has put his criticism in the form of novels which can hold their own with the best postmodern fiction

Yet whatever sales there had been slowed, and the briefly-proffered palms and plaudits were pulled back – and eventually the author retreated back to his Alabaman ashram, from where he could see but no longer hope to scale the Parnassian heights swarmed over by assorted Updikes, Mailers, Vidals, and lesser imitators. Who knows quite why? Maybe his publishers did not market hard enough. Or maybe rumours started to spread among the kind of people who type reviews for ‘prestigious’ journals – that Lee Pefley was not wholly abstract, a monster to be hated/chortled at, and then safely locked away between cardboard, but was in fact a distorted reflection of the author, with a licence if not quite to kill, then at least to cudgel, raining down reactionary isms on the pates of book-buying innocents. These rumours, which had always been current, could not but have spread, given Lee’s constant worrying at the fallen carcass of the old America, his wicked adherence to difference over sameness and quality over quantity, his rancid rejection of all the old nostrums in favour of infinitely older ones. Manhattan, which had briefly paused, sighed and passed on.

But Perdue kept writing, in a kind of fever, sequestered in the hind part of his ex-nation like a Dark Ages mystic – books incandescent and dangerous as the volcanoes which dot his imaginary Alabaman horizons. And after a time, he made new, less fickle, less easily frightened friends, who felt it reflected extremely badly on American letters that so distinctive and persistent a stylist had been left so long in the wilderness. So he has slipped quietly back into print through small presses, not a late flowering but a careful bringing-out of a sunlight-starved prize specimen from strangling surrounding vegetation. First was The Node (midwifed by Nine-Banded Books), now comes Morning Crafts – and soon Reuben will attempt to strangle snakes in the cradle.

The cover of Morning Crafts, painted by Alex Kurtagic, features a dungareed, plaid-shirted, straw-hatted bumpkin viewed from behind, as he stares (doubtless slack-jawed) at hills beyond which two smoking volcanoes promise both excitement and extreme peril. In his hand is a book – and not just any book, but a proper book, old, large, thick, hardback, probably dusty, almost certainly without any pictures whatsoever. And it is more than even a proper book. It is also a key – the key to the picture, and to Perdue’s passions – the great glories of Western civilization, the wonders of learning and life, the endless igneous possibilities that lie beyond “them thar hills” for a strong-minded minority that takes the trouble to explore.

To begin with, Morning Crafts’ Lee is a slightly reluctant quester for high culture. We meet him first as a 13 year old, a bucolic cub seemingly content with hoicking harmless bream out of little lakes, and gawping at strangers – like the besuited man who spots something others have not, and asks Lee whether he wouldn’t like to try his piscatorial skills elsewhere “Where the prey is larger, and the depths so much deeper.” The urchin is inquisitive, and he follows the man, slightly foot-draggingly, entangling himself and the man in questions, but eventually abandoning his prized catch as the man leads him onto new territory. Eventually, they come to a kind of secret and rather Spartan sort of academy, where Lee’s guider and others labour against incredible odds to impart Western Civ., hard science, and antique mores to a small group of young Americans of raw intelligence but less application. And it is more than just education that is imparted at this establishment; one of the tutors tells him,

…advanced instinct is what we seek, refinement without end and the promotion of beauty above everything else

At first, Lee resents having been “abducted” (as he sees it); he misses home and nostalgically recalls days of noble savagery far away from Greek verbs or astrophysics. He makes breaks for freedom – but some inner demon always dogs his fugitive feet, drags him back to the academy. It occurs to him as he looks down on the roof of his father’s farm, that he has been away too long, seen too much. As Thomas Wolfe could have informed him – had Lee stooped to reading modern novels when there were so many neglected classics – You Can’t Go Home Again. What Lee has done and discovered has set him fatally apart from his family and old acquaintances – and also from all of America, which so dislikes all non-financial forms of hierarchy, individualism, or quality.

But he finds he does not mind. Furthermore, he would not have minded even if he had known (as we Perduvians know from the other books) that superiority will never bring contentment – although it will bring him at least one great emotion denied to the dwellers on the plain. However high the personal price, it is one Lee has become willing to pay – just as his creator has (presumably) become accustomed to his lack of lionization by the literati.

The book stops, sated with its own weirdness and wit, as the rapscallion turns 14 – already unfitted for just about everything the unfit mainstream esteems. He is not yet a man, but he has already become a tragic hero – tragically acclimatized to excellence, to reading by himself in the forest, hearing great sounds, stalking the universe one star at a time, his brain always awhir, “ruining itself on beauty, aroma, wisdom and the world”. He has just set out on his lifelong progress (which has also been his author’s) towards becoming “naive” in the eyes of an era which knows an awful lot about awful things, but almost nothing else. And even though we know what a terrible, and terribly unhappy, man he is marked out to become, we cannot but wish him well.

This review was first published in the February 2014 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

 

Meet Lee Pefley – sociopath (and sage)

MEET LEE PEFLEY – SOCIOPATH (AND SAGE)

Fields of Asphodel is the latest of Tito Perdue’s five critically acclaimed satires detailing the uproarious, curmudgeonly life of Leland (Lee) Pefley. It is impossible to review this book in isolation, so we need to know what has gone before – all the more necessary for a mostly British audience because, for some inexplicable reason, Perdue has never been published in the United Kingdom.

The first book was Lee, which appeared in 1991. This features Pefley as an old man who has gone back to his Alabama hometown to die and who beguiles the tedious time by hitting or fantasizing about hitting those he sees as ignorant or ugly, and generally making himself as disagreeable as possible. He is a man characterized by overweening arrogance and a generic loathing for the modern world, and gnawed by disillusion, loneliness (his deceased wife Judy is constantly in his thoughts) and a profound melancholia. Lee received rave reviews from just about everyone who read it, except for one or two journals which felt that surreal originality, a vigorous prose style, profound culture, mordant humour, marvellous characterization and moving evocations were all very well, but they couldn’t counterbalance Lee’s ‘snobbishness’. But astuter critics were united in their view that here was a Southern Samuel Beckett or James Joyce for the 1990s.

The New Austerities (1994) was a prequel, which showed Lee packing in his detested insurance job in New York, and driving back down to Dixie with Judy in a car on which he has only made one payment, drifting down an hallucinogenically-imagined east coast, believing that Alabama may be their Land of Potential Content. But he finds when he gets there that the bucolic, conservative, unregimented South of his memory or imagination has become ‘the New South’, an increasingly unfree and homogenized place, where pick-up trucks driven by hard-faced, self-reliant farmers are being replaced by nearly new cars driven by soft executives in suits.

Opportunities in Alabama Agriculture (also 1994) is a pre-prequel, leapfrogging two generations backwards to Lee’s grandfather Ben, born and raised in Alabama just after the Civil War. Ben is a dreamer (as Lee will be), the son of a dreamer and with brothers who are so impractical that they become alcoholics and die young. Unsuccessful as a shop assistant and as a farmer, yet gifted with a curious literary talent, he eventually lands a job as a rural postman, the area’s first – ironically heralding the start of the systematization his descendant will hate so much. Opportunities is filled with time elisions and sideslips, set in an Alabama that is part modern but also part prehistoric. It is also suffused with the essence of childhood – close observation of small things and acceptance of the status quo, blended with wonder at the strangeness and size of the world.

The fourth book in the series is The Sweet-Scented Manuscript (2004), which returns to Lee’s own life, following his journey at the age of 18 from Alabama to university in the North. He finds new books and peers, but most of all he finds Judy, his perfect mate, who thereafter becomes the lodestar of his life. Although all of Perdue’s books are partly autobiographical, this is perhaps the most obviously personal, conveying beautifully the bittersweet ardency that is the common lot of many young adults. It is redeemed from being saccharine by Lee’s ever-present knowledge that youth and health and optimism are highly perishable fruits. He is hauntingly aware that the fresh female face he strokes today will be furrowed tomorrow, and the day after that they will both be “tumbling forever among the stars”.

So we come to Fields of Asphodel – without a doubt the strangest of five very strange books. It is difficult to know how to do justice to a book that combines a comforting (and quite traditional Christian) faith with conversations with God about 1950s music, courtly archaisms with crude street slang, eldritch imagery with allusions to medieval theology, philosophical points (some a little ponderous) with haemorrhoid-related humour.

But it is safe to presume that it will be the last in the series, as now Lee is dead, yet still sentient, searching for Judy across a twilit landscape resembling a limbo dreamed up by a visionary painter. Far from being the Elysian place the title suggests, it is bleak and ugly, filled with ill-conditioned people of the sort Lee hoped he would have left behind on earth. Lee still has his bodily ailments and infirmities, to which are added wet, cold and hunger, and the discomfiture of meeting intellectual equals who are able to defeat him in verbal sparring matches, as they all shuffle or limp across a freezing and largely featureless landscape towards the hoped-for “higher domains”.

On the way, he is sometimes scourged – being pelted with cabbage, being interviewed by officials, working as a salesman, being threatened with death for ‘having no compassion’, having his shoes stolen and having everyone refusing his Canadian currency. But there are also compensations, such as warmer weather, caning officials and sales man- agers, meeting some of his revered Greek philosophers, being offered a job binding books by hand, seeing voluptuaries being eaten alive by pigs or having molten gold poured into their mouths while whole cities burn in the far distance. Eventually, he can see “mountains of royal blue where shepherds were harassing each other with trumpet calls”, and he knows he is nearing his apotheosis. Entering the personally customized village at the far side of the desert (architecture and society circa 1910, flora and vegetation circa Silurian), he knows that he has finally been “transported into a legendary person”.

It would be easy to dismiss Lee Pefley (and by extension his creator) as distastefully fundamentalist. But although Lee’s approach obviously goes too far, the Pefley/Perdue critique of modernity is of great importance, including such questions as – why are our countries increasingly characterized by angst, anger, alienation and anomie? Why do we produce no great art? Why does everything have to be so ugly? Why does nothing work properly? Why are our politicians so incompetent and untrustworthy?

We should remember that Lee is not naturally bitter; his admittedly sociopathic traits are the by-products of what he sees (correctly) as a toxic society. His chief hope has always been childishly simple – that people will try to live up to their potential, and that society should be as civilized as can be. That people and society always fall short is not his fault, but theirs; they (or we) have never really tried. They (or we) have unprecedented health, wealth and access to information and culture – yet the majority of us prefer to spend our time making and spending money, or reading about Kylie, or watching random agglomerations of men chasing after a ball.

Lee’s ideal appears on p231 –

Always he had wanted a small world getting smaller, a fine people getting finer, all of them dwelling far apart in hand-build cottages on a glebe getting gorgeouser

What he has always hated – and what we should likewise hate – is the contemporary cross-party concept of nations being economies with countries attached, instead of the other way around. The unlikeable, unforgettable character of Lee Pefley embodies a paradox – that some of those who seem by today’s standards to be the most acerbic, the most misanthropic, the most ‘irrelevant’ and ‘out of touch’ may secretly be the greatest idealists of all.

This review first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Spring 2008