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


Northern Soul


Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal has become so deeply ensconced in the cultural picture library that almost everyone hearing the title will conjure up instantly the film’s most memorable image – blanched-faced, black-cloaked Death playing chess with Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a Swedish knight recently returned from the Crusades. At stake is not just the knight’s life, but his afterlife, because his faith has been deeply shaken by his experiences. Behind and above the game, there is a stripped-down Nordic landscape ravaged, like Block himself, by disease and despair. Von Sydow’s angular physique, bleached coloration and depressive personality are the perfect personification of hyperboreal manhood – now as much as then. He is no Block but a thoughtful and hag-ridden man, who wants desperately to believe that there is more to life than the merely mundane. At his core there chews a terrible emptiness, as if the chilliness of the septentrional zone has entered into his bone marrow.

With his practical esquire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), who still prays daily (although he is only going through the motions, as he has probably always done), Block zigzags across Scania towards his castle and his waiting wife, during the course of a single dreadful day. Wherever he goes, he cannot escape either Death or, what is much worse, Disillusion.

Along the corpse-strewn way, he comes across cynical churchmen, flagellants and a witch being burned by panicky soldiers – and makes confession to a priest who is really Death in disguise. He asks the ‘priest’,

Why must He hide in a midst of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me?

He also encounters Raval (Bertil Anderberg) the man who originally persuaded him to become a Crusader – but Raval is now a looter of bodies and a would-be rapist.

The only slight relief in the otherwise unrelieved misery is when Block and Jöns come across a family troupe of strolling players whose moral tales and religious tableaux are much in demand from a panic-stricken populace. The players are (for the moment at least) healthy, happy and with a young son, Mikael, who absorbs all their thoughts. Jof (Nils Poppe), a juggler who has visions of the Virgin, and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) represent for Block an innocence and beauty that are for him unrecoverable. He and Jöns rapidly develop a deep solicitude for them, with Jöns rescuing Jof from persecution by Raval, and the knight eating wild strawberries with them all in a glade, forget- ting his desolation for a sunlit moment. “I shall remember this hour of peace”, he says –

…the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign, and a great content.

On a generous impulse, he kicks over the chess board, enabling Jof, Mia and Mikael to make at least a temporary escape while Death is picking up the pieces. But it is too late for him, his wife, Jöns and many others. Death infiltrates the castle as Block entreats God for mercy and his lady recites Revelations.

The following morning, as he and his family jolt along the roads out of the plague district and out of danger, Jof has a different kind of vision – of the silhouetted knight and his followers being led away over the hills in a dance of death –

They move away from the dawn in a solemn dance away towards the dark lands while the rain cleanses their cheeks of the salt from their bitter tears.

Few films are so beautiful or literate, and fewer have so well captured a mood. Although anti-Church messages, irreligion and the fear of death have always been with us, the combination of these messages with newly fashionable existentialism and Bergman’s starkly arresting iconography crystallized the then emerging but now everywhere evident crisis of faith and confidence which has become a contagion coursing across all the countries of the North. For Westerners now, as for Block, the spectre of extinction has become a guest at our every feast – and our countries are becoming as strange and unwelcoming as Bergman’s sickness-strewn Sweden. But the losing game is not yet played out, and if we choose to, there is time for us to kick over the board and change the rules.

This article first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Autumn 2008