Don’t be put off Town Smokes by its kinky cover photograph. The image of two leather-hatted, oil-smeared, gun-toting biker-types sucking back each other’s smoke gives a clue to the harsh white-trash America which is the subject of the nine short stories in this book, but is by no means the complete picture. In a way, Town Smokes is like a plate of nine exotic hors d’oevres. The presentation of each is enough to make you gasp – technically flawless and yielding a cocktail of different tastes, delightfully and smoothly blended and more often that not surprising, with a bite of chili pepper or horseradish hidden within to ensure it is never predictable. In these stories all the elements which delight us in this genre are present and correct: lucid and pulsating characterisations and the conjuring up of vivid settings are achieved through the most economical of literary means.
The general subject which Benedict takes is the rural underworld of white America. These are people who have been stranded in the vast land which forms the America we rarely hear about, and are governed by its harsh and unforgiving nature. They are the redneck characters whom we glimpse and are often led to fear in films; they live in trailers and shacks and desolate farms which are teetering shelters rather than nests, and are here presented in a technicolour that is drained of the glow of the good things in life. The book, however, does not just function as a depressing saga, a fleeting catalogue of jolting and violent events, like a Hells Angels convoy storming briefly through a country village. It offers us much more, because the life of the main character we encounter in every story is so real and gripping that we cannot help but develop a fascination, often macabre, with each scenario that Benedict elegantly depicts. We meet young boys and men at moments in their lives where they experience some kind of revelation, and we hear it through their voices in a language which is brief but never restrained, where the characters are unselfconsciously attempting to formulate responses to events and to express their emotions in often desperately deficient vocabularies.
In The Sutton Pie Safe a child too young to yet understand why things are as they are describes his impressions of a strange woman who has visited his mother: ‘Mrs Hanson gave out a laugh that as like nothing I’d ever heard from a woman before, loud and happy’, and in that sentence is revealed all the biting hardship, disappointment and misunderstanding that has drained his own family of almost all of its humanity, so we find the conclusion of the story to be no surprise but the more upsetting for that reason. Each story’s flawless construction, its compactness and the inevitable shock of each one’s culmination is made gripping by the brilliance of Benedict’s ability to bring this unfamiliar world alive. He does this by narrating through the thoughts and voices of one primary character in each story, and such is his skill that despite the confines of the genre we sometimes find we are sickened by how much we have been able to observe in these godforsaken lives. In Dog the retreat of Eldrige to a home under his trailer in the company of a sick, pus-covered dog he has just shot is his means of escape from his life, but is almost too much for the reader to bear as an expression of a most sordid and hopeless kind of insanity.
The cumulative effect of the stories is made all the more brutal for the primitive and often savage masculine code of ethics which prevails. The main character in each story is a man or boy. Women play a crucial role in the various narratives, but we are only ever afforded a glimpse of the way things might appear through their eyes. In these stories the men are providers, and often hunters and killers. They are inextricably bound up with the land and the other animals which share it. Benedict tells each story through a different male character, and their voices are gripping. We hear their thoughts and their voices and are treated only to their versions of events, which in each story serves to push the tension to sometimes unbearable heights.
These stories refute the dictum that ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’, as Benedict’s fiction is easily as harsh, as surprising and as lacking in fairness as we can expect life to be. Just because these characters are born with nothing and often gain nothing, does not preclude events or their own behaviour serving to worsen their lot. These hors d’oevres are easy to eat, you could never put one down once it was halfway to your mouth, but they do leave a bitter aftertaste that lingers as Benedict’s enviable literary skill ensures that we cannot prevent the stories and characters from intruding most uncomfortably into our own lives of relative comfort and control. However, faced with another plate we wouldn’t hesitate to eat them all over again.
Reviewed by Gilly Paget