This was the first book on the list that I really scratched my head over. Sure, I hated Sophie's Choice, but William Styron was an important figure in 20th century literature – not the least for his role at The Paris Review – and Sophie's Choice was his best-selling book. Valid reasons or otherwise, at least I understood. But, with Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, I haven't got a clue.
Tobacco Road tells the story of an impoverished family in Depression-era Georgia: the Lesters. The Lester patriarch, Jeeter, is a feckless, selfish man, who happens to have descended from a family of cotton farmers. However, through the generations, the family's been so reduced that now Jeeter's barely a sharecropper: he lacks the resources and credit to acquire the seed needed to actually plant a crop. Jeeter Lester is a farmer in his mind, alone.
In fact, he wastes away the days dreaming about farming while felling the blackjack, that grows rife on his farm, to sell as firewood for a pittance in Augusta. Fortunately, most of Jeeter's 17 children have left home, leaving him with only two mouths to feed – Ellie May, 18, and Dude, 16 – besides his wife, Ada's, and his own. His mother also lives with them, but Jeeter doesn't feed her when he can help it. Instead, she's left to scrounge for scraps like a dog.
Actually, extreme poverty has reduced all of the Lesters to little more than dogs. Their hunger is so desperate that it isn't safe for Jeeter's son-in-law, Lov Bensey, to pass by the farm with a bag of turnips on his shoulder. Lov knows that he probably won't make it home with his bag of turnips full, but sexual frustration gets the better of him: it's been nearly a year since Jeeter sold his 12 year-old daughter, Pearl, to Lov for seven dollars, but she's proven to be a less than willing bed-mate, a less than affectionate wife. Lov has tried to, alternately, bully and woo her, but is now so desperate he's considering force, and so he takes his chances with the turnips to get Jeeter's opinion on the wisdom of tying Pearl down. Literally. The Lesters eagerly watch Lov approach, and by the time he reaches the farm, they are frantic with hunger, luring him and his turnips off the road like pack-animals closing in for the kill. What ensues (a more or less, successful attempt to seduce the sack away from him) is either a darkly comic set-piece or a heart-breaking portrayal of rural poverty. I wasn't quite sure.
It is precisely this confusion that ruined this book. While there's little in the way of plot (Jeeter doesn't do much; Ada pines for a fashionable burial dress and some snuff; Pearl runs away; Ellie-May takes her place with Lov; Dude marries Sister Bessie, a whore-turned-preacher twice his age, they buy a car, in place of food or seed, then, summarily destroy it; Jeeter burns his land, in preparation for seed his doesn't have, and succeeds in burning down his house), there's less in the way of pathos. Caldwell presents the sharecroppers as victims of progress, kicked when they're down by landlords and bankers. Caldwell would have us believe that Jeeter's stubborn refusal to take job in town is noble, but I couldn't help but see it as dumb. Perhaps, the problem is that I was never really convinced that Jeeter, with all the land, all the seed, all the guano, in the world would actually get off his butt and farm. Or perhaps, my inability to feel for Jeeter was the result of being made to feel like a sociopath for much of this book.
I read decidedly unfunny things (Grandma Lester being ran over, repeatedly, with the new car; Dude's response to killing a black man on the road) and yet found myself laughing. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with dark humour, but when the priming is unclear (is this really a joke?), I was left feeling uncomfortable.
Otherwise, the book is written competently enough. Not, top-100 material, but if South Park meets Hee-Haw sounds appealing, then you might want to check it out. Unless, of course, I'm wrong, and it wasn't supposed to be funny at all. But, if that's the case, I should probably seek some psychiatric help.