rev. of The Trapper’s Last Shot by John Yount

Issue #6
Fall 1974

I first got to know John Yount when we were undergraduates together at Vanderbilt during the late Fifties. We struck up a conversation during a ten minute break in a Medieval Philosophy class and quickly agreed that St. Thomas was breaking our backs. I recollect that later we put in some heavy study together concerning the high reasoning Aquinas deployed in his system we did wrestle with the proofs for the existence of God, but often as not, while meaning to grasp the subject, we'd trail off into telling stories or worrying over how to write stories. We were a good deal more comfortable with the
Bible than with the
Summa Theologica and the
Summa Contra Gentiles.

Yount was from the mountains of North Carolina and he was the damndest hunter and fisherman I'd ever met. He was also a master of the tale, the anecdote, the joke, the ghost story, the pussy story, the fish and/or bear story (Lord, he could carry on, to the delight of one person or a roomful) and he already had the art to turn fine talk into good written fiction. He was something of a wild man but he already had some understanding of the mysteries of scenic technique, dialogue, rising action, and resolution. He had a sense of traditional and folk literature by way of where he was from, from the mountains, his parents and his people, and he was also a careful reader. He was learning to pay strict attention to stories by Welty and Warren and Hardy and Faulkner and Joyce, to name a few. He meant to be a writer, damn straight.

I don't think he had then, or has now, any absolute critical standards, but I have heard him speak the words
verisimilitude and
universality as easily as some people say
counselor or
banyan tree. He also knows most of the words for car, hook, gun, and rain. I've never heard him talk about the
mimetic theory of art, but I've seen him point a thick finger at a patch of dialogue and say something like, "This isn't right. It's merely a recorded talk. It's not written. No way." He'll read a scene and say, "It didn't happen that way, did it?" Get the details right. Get the sense of the voice in the way prose works when it wants to register a song. Move real people over the ground of real places, and when you imagine their memories and night dreams and day fantasies, imagine them as if you were writing the truth. Which suggests that John is a literary realist who can pick a mean guitar (let's do "Knoxville Girl" or "Farther Along"), a bit old-fashioned, not one of your recent fabulists or semi-allegorists or nihilistic naturalists. Not exactly.

I've always thought of him as similar to Hardy (the Hardy of
The Return of the Native and also of
Jude the Obscure, Jude especially), a type of folk or mythic realist, closer after all to those improbable though actual ballad stories than to any thoughtless determinism or literature of defeated escape into fancy. I think of him that way sometimes, but that isn't what I always find on the pages of his novels.

Yount is a complicated man who writes novels that seem far less complicated than they are. And he enjoys finding a variety of styles and ideas in the works of other people.

Last spring while we were on our way to do some whitewater canoeing, he allowed as how he thought Barthelme was some kind of genius. O.K.,John.

And in the middle of a false dawn after a poker game last year, he looked up from his coffee and asked me what I thought about Marx. Marx, for Christ's sake from a man who believes in ghosts, the Bell witch, inside straights, and God knows whatever else he can't shake off. Suddenly it comes through loud and clear the mountain man, now bourgeois man and educated man, is brooding over social injustice while taking my money at draw poker.

He is considered one of our outstanding realists because of the literal compassion he has for his characters but, friend, he is also eaten up with politics.

I've read and heard that he affirms the possibility for human freedom in the face of terrible evidence to the contrary. He is supposed to believe that people can change, or will change, for the better, sometimes. I've never seen him called a Marxist and I doubt that he has been defined as a naturalist with a carefully balanced sympathetic hangover, the result of good luck and the enduring company of good women, but I am now almost prepared to call him a writer of sympathetic naturalism, and basically a-Marxist, because of good luck and the enduring company of good women. Something like that.

Reviews mention his believable characters, his strong and accurate scenes, his narrative power, his brilliant imagery (and certainly the sensuous texture of his prose is first-rate) honesty, clarity, decency. True enough, for the most part. But something is missing. The man who wrote
Wolf at the Door (a novel about a young man who contemplates suicide out of guilt for being country and educated and socially impotent, until he meets a plain strong woman) and
The Trapper's Last Shot (one of the most desperate and moving novels I've ever read) gets reported again and again as a magnanimous good ole realist.
Wolf is good and well worth reading for itself and as an introduction to Yount, but
Trapper is truly something else it is an important American novel, and not because Yount is a good ole boy, which he isn't.

The Trapper's Last Shot is set in small town and country Georgia at the beginning of the Sixties. The locale and the large sense of Time is done very well. The novel includes some brilliant shitkicking humor along with the main line of downhome terror and ruin. There's a Studebaker backseat sex scene that is hilariously painful, an example of nostalgia with soul. Pool halls, blank streets, dusty roads, shooting dove, shooting pool, and drive-in movies are all done right. Strange comedy maybe. Surely a sense of pathos and banality. Maybe some kind of tragedy. Surely misery at the heart of it. Politics aborning.

Book One of
The Trapper's Last Shot is one chapter long, three printed pages long. It tells the story of five boys who go swimming Cocke County, Georgia, during the dry summer of 1960 –

When they got among the trees on the river bank, the oldest of them, who was fourteen, shucked quickly out of his britches and ran down the bank and out on a low sycamore limb and, without breaking stride, tucked up his legs and did a cannonball into the water. The surface all around, even to the farthest edge, rolled when he hit as if the pool were alive, but they didn't see the snakes at first. The boy's face was white as bleached bone when he came up. "God," he said to them, "don't come in!" And though it was no more than a whisper, they all heard. He seemed to struggle and wallow and make pitifully small headway though he was a strong swimmer. When he got in waist deep water, they could see the snakes hanging on him, dozens of them biting and holding on. He was already staggering and crying in a thin, wheezy voice, and he brushed and slapped at the snakes trying to knock them off. He got almost to the bank before he fell, and though they wanted to help him,
they couldn't keep from backing away. But he didn't need them then. He tried only a little while to get up before the movement of his arms and legs lost purpose, and he began to shudder and then to stiffen and settle out. One moccasin, pinned under his chest, struck his cheek again and again, but they could see he didn't know it, for there was only the unresponsive bounce of flesh.

With Book Two the main story begins, and it seems the snakes are forgotten. It's all about Beau Jim Early coming home from the peacetime Army, his buying the dubious Studebaker and heading for Cocke County. The snake story doesn't seem to relate directly to the lives of the brothers Beau Jim and Dan Early and Charlene Early (Dan's wife) and Yancey Tillard, who will be Beau Jim's wife before the story is over. When I first read
Trapper, I thought that the cruelly beautiful Book One was stuck onto the front and didn't work. After a second reading, I feel that it is a dark objective overture to the naturalistic vision that claims much of the novel.

And let me recount the outlines of the main story, because in this novel the plot is a large part of what everything is trying to mean. Scene by strong scene the writing is so good we are easily diverted from what the action is revealing. Maybe Yount is at fault here, maybe not. Maybe he is, in fact, essentially a realist of sentiment, who says the texture of our daily lives is more important than any sense of larger direction. But maybe he is telling us to watch out this human tendency to get caught up in the sensuous details of our lives may be the Devil's work, or History's, or the Boss's. I think he wants us to pay attention to the plot. Pay attention or it'll get you. Pay attention so you'll know it already possesses you, is eating your lunch, is destroying your will and your soul.

Beau Jim comes home from the Army to find older brother Dan dividing his life between a service station and a piece of sorry country land he is trying to buy and work. Dan Early is at best semi-literate and he is haunted by memories and dreams of his father who was a moderately successful tobacco farmer in Carolina until hellraising in general and whiskey in particular brought him down. Father Vernon once connected a big circular saw to his Ford car, then chewed up some roads and bridges in Carolina a proud memory for Dan, but the reader suffers the humor of that violent ride as a confusion. It's funny, but it's also an image of sexual and political defeat. Vernon gets off light from the law but his weakness in court troubles Dan at his source. Vernon was a good ole boy
hey hey hey lots of laughs and it's a fucking poor life, for all its glory, and Yount shows it.

Dan is not bright, but his dreams are vivid as opera, and we believe them.

Dan at his father's trial –

But Dan was tense and ready to snicker a feeling like feathers in his nose at what his father would say to turn the tables: ARE YOU ALTOGETHER AND ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN, YOREHONOR, THAT SOMETHIN DIDN'T JUMP OVER THE FENCE AND GIT TO YOUR MOMMA WHEN SHE WUZ IN HEAT? He waited and waited. His palms misty, the strain getting to his back, his kidneys burning. But the judge went on laying down rules for his father's behavior, and his father went on standing with his head hung, his big chapped hands folded before him, and his breath whistling softly and wearily though his twisted nose. The suspense had reached the threshold of pain before the chemistry of it began to change and burn him with fear. He tried with all his strength to will a funny comment out of his father.

Vernon and the boys' mother burn up in a house fire that probably started by way of Vernon smoking drunk in bed, and Dan flees to Georgia with his asthmatic little brother. Dan twenty-one and Beau Jim six. But Beau Jim remembers a picture from the old house in Carolina.

What Beau Jim remembered was a picture. It had been hung in the musty smelling, seldom used parlor, and he could describe it to its smallest detail. He thought of it now, lying on his cot in the quiet dark of the house. It was an old print, done in brown and black, and it showed a mountain man in buckskins astride a horse that was wading across a deep slow stream. The sun was gone, and the wilderness around was lit obliquely, and there was on the still surface of the water a faint sheen, like silver . . . (The horse) had gathered itself to hunch for speed, the mind could see what would happen in the next moment, for the load was too heavy and the water too deep, and the horse could only stumble and flounder. Having dug his heel in the horse's ribs, the mountain man was turned half around in the saddle to look behind him, his right hand swinging his long rifle around, and his left moving up to cradle the forehand piece. There was strength in his bearded face, or there would have been if it
weren't for a telltale shine in the trapper's eye like the shine on the surface of the water. And Beau Jim had understood, even then, what that was about. It was fear that had dashed that moisture across the man's eye. There had been no moment of wonder or simple surprise; the fear was readymade, as though the mountain man had long dreaded what was falling to him, so that even the instant he was swinging his long rifle around, his thumb cocking the hammer, his eyes had already bleared with the sure and certain knowledge that he was dead. Behind him on the bank the half dozen Indians, lean and light and all but naked on their bareback ponies, had already raised their bows and lances over their heads in anticipation of the kill.

In Georgia at the time of the novel's present, Dan's boss at the service station, Cass Willard, is a recist more than Dan ever meant to be, but Cass has the power over Dan. Cass is the boss and shoots dove and takes a meal at Dan and Charlene's place on a day when the well is dry. Cass is a rotten son of a bitch, though Yount manages to conjure some sympathy for him, probably because it is Cass who generates some lust in Charlene, Dan's wife. Charlene hates the goddamned farm, hates living in the country, wants to be back at the apartment in town, where it's happening as much as it will ever
happen for her. Only a fool would blame her. She hears her mind saying,
I'd fuck yore ears off, Cass
Willard, which bothers her a little, though she doesn't do anything about it during the time of the novel, and we aren't told that she does anything about it after Dan is dead.

Also, Dan's daughter Sheila is a bit retarded and is required to go to school with black children, which adds to Dan's misery (with a lot of help from Cass), especially since his black neighbor, Sammy, across the road is obviously smarter than he is. Sammy's large family is flourishing, relatively speaking. Both Sammy and Dan do time at work for that son of a bitch Willard at the service station.

While inevitable slaughter and ruin are coming on, Beau Jim is getting used to being home. He has rediscovered an old buddy, Claire Buckner, who turns out to be a pool hustler and sexually ambiguous, having been caught with a deputy's brother doing things they don't approve in Cocke County. Claire, by way of Yount's sympathy, becomes a pitiful man not because he is homosexual but because he doesn't have the energy to leave for a more tolerant place. Maybe Claire has guts for staying. Godknows. Whatever, Beau Jim isn't easy with Claire and has the luck to discover Yancey Tillard, a miraculous leftover from his high school graduating class. She is working at the Dan-Dee Drivein Theater and for Beau Jim she turns out to be the goddess in the machine. Beau Jim tries the local college but quits because that sort of education seems unnatural to him. Yancey and Beau Jim are getting thick about the time Dan has finally been forced to the wall by bad dreams, poverty, biology, and politics. Dan
goes on a rampage, killing Sammy and Sammy's entire family, before he is cut down and killed himself.

All the forces were against him and people are to blame. Vernon is to blame, somehow and Charlene is sure as hell at fault she set the barn on fire and blamed it on the blacks. Though she, Charlene, is a very sympathetic character, and Cass is of course to blame.

Everything is clearly and elegantly rendered in Yount's prose. He want to forgive the world, the earth, and all. And he managed to, in his first novel, but in
Trapper he can't quite forgive entirely.

Beau Jim retreats, stunned, to the life of a bricklayer's apprentice his life will be Yancey and raising little Sheila, Dan's child, whom Charlene doesn't want. Charlene goes back to town, as free as she can imagine, and more's the pity.

Yancey and Beau Jim will even invite Yancey's widowed mother into their new home. Beau Jim will be guarded by women. A woman may burn a barn, but more often than not a woman is almost salvation in Yount's fiction.

A final picture of a grim scene Beau Jim at the conclusion of the novel sees a waterboy on the job being taunted by the older good ole boys they even go so far as to twist the young man's nipples but Beau Jim doesn't or can't react, except to glare at one of the monsters. In this scene Yount's strategy becomes devastating. Beau Jim goes on working while the torture happens, and the reader gets involved in the pleasures of preparing brick the sensuality of work diverts us from the human cruelty being clearly displayed.

It's a disturbing resolution to what seems at times almost a pastoral novel. But Yount also plays for the regular responses of our standard defeated humanism, while offering a novel that can reasonably be understood in terms of naturalism. The Earlys never had a chance, and Dan's lovely imagination was only further torture to him.

Maybe some wise reader can take it all as agrarian and small town tragedy, wherein what seems to be naturalism is given mythic proportion by the high correspondences and allusions that are borne along by the story. But I don't think that gets it either.

Had Beau Jim understood what happened to Dan, had he understood what's happening to himself, then possibly the term tragedy would be in order. Maybe proletarian tragedy or populist tragedy. But Beau Jim doesn't understand. He does not enjoy any kind of spiritual and/or political revolution, though the intention of the book suggests that there may be some hope in his future.

Trapper is far more than sentimental realism. And Yount has in truth gone beyond being a sympathetic Marxist naturalist with a hangover created by good women. Some books need to be defined and this is one.
Trapper cries out for definition, and I haven't provided the definition. It is a marvelous creation that goes a long way toward where the American novel ought to be. Give us another one, John.