Erskine Caldwell's greasy hairball of a novel.

Literature that thrills.
May 24 2006 11:50 AM

Pulp Valentine

Erskine Caldwell's lurid vision of the American South.

Click here to read more from Slate's "Pulp Fiction" week.

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Certainly readers in the South didn't see anything comic about Tobacco Road. While it was published to generally strong reviews, Southerners mostly deplored it. They thought of Caldwell the same way they thought of Faulkner: as a regional traitor, a writer who exposed them as primitives. Tobacco Road was banned for decades in high-school libraries in Caldwell's home town. The local police chief said that if Caldwell ever came crawling back, he'd run him out of town on a rail.

Tobacco Road is not, thank God, unrelievedly bleak. While alive, Jeeter never completely loses hope he'll farm again, and Caldwell awkwardly and self-consciously offers up digressions on topics such as how the Jeeters' poverty could have been prevented. But as Caldwell arranges for his characters to engage in ever more absurd actions, he can remind you of Robert Mitchum's character in The Night of the Hunter, careering around with LOVE tattooed on one set of bruised knuckles and HATE on the other, pummeling everything he claims to love into submission.

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So, why did Tobacco Road find a place on the Modern Library's list of the Best 100 Novels in the English Language—at No. 91, between Midnight's Children and Ironweed? The reasons have nothing to do with the blinkered cultural stereotypes Caldwell locked into cement and everything to do with the fact that few novels have as much stripped-down force and inspire as much terror and pity. The force comes from that fact that Caldwell's id—his naked obsessions with sex, class, and violence—cuts the surface of every page like a dorsal fin. You can't stop turning the pages, because you want to see how much further your jaw can drop. The terror and pity arise from the fact that, as ham-fisted and exploitative as his attempts could be, Caldwell really did want to bring Americans some news: news about how the worst-off of the rural poor really lived.

Pulp novel? Maybe. The pulpiest—and arguably the most unforgettable—Southern novel you'll ever read? Yep.

Dwight Garner is senior editor of the New York Times Book Review. He is at work on a biography of James Agee.

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