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Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, published in 1932, is a greasy hairball of a novel—one of the sickest and most lurid books to have emerged from the literature of the American South. It's about as nutritious as a plate of pork cracklings. You're going to feel a little ill when you get up from this table. And I mean all of this, I think, in a good way.
It's cheating, really, to call Tobacco Road a pulp novel. The book—Caldwell's third—was first issued between hard covers by a respectable publisher, Scribner's, and was edited by the more-than-respectable Maxwell Perkins. Its early admirers included Faulkner and Malcolm Cowley. Saul Bellow thought Caldwell should have won the Nobel Prize. But within a decade or two, as Caldwell's books got crummier and crummier (take a look at Episode in Palmetto), he morphed into this country's best-selling dime-store novelist. By the 1940S and '50s, when most readers encountered Tobacco Road, the novel existed mostly in cheap mass-market editions with increasingly eye-popping covers. Out came the heaving cleavage and the intimations of hillbilly degeneracy. Gone were the respectable plaudits. Erskine Caldwell had been, largely of his own volition, Pulp'd.
Yet Tobacco Road's cultural reach—thanks in part to a folksy Broadway version of the novel—is long and complicated. You can trace the intensity of Caldwell's vision in Tobacco Road right up through the undervalued and largely out-of-print novels of Harry Crews, and even through those of—though it is mildly heretical to say this— Cormac McCarthy. Without Tobacco Road, it's almost impossible to imagine the arrival of Hee-Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, not to mention Deliverance.
Tobacco Road, set in a fictionalized version of Caldwell's home town, lays bare the story of the Lesters, the poorest, whitest, trashiest, horniest family in rural Georgia. Jeeter, the Lester family patriarch in Tobacco Road, is a beaten-down sharecropper who can no longer get credit to buy the supplies he needs to farm. His family survives, in their crumbling shack, on fat-back rinds and corn meal. Ada, his wife, is wasting away from pellagra; Dude, their 16-year-old son, is a half-wit; Ellie May, their voluptuous 18-year-old daughter, has a gruesome hairlip that makes her "look as if her mouth were bleeding profusely." Jeeter and Ada's other surviving children got out as quickly as they could.
Base instincts are the only kind the Lesters seem to have. The book opens with a visit from Lov, Jeeter's son-in-law, who's distraught that his 13-year-old wife, Pearl (Jeeter's daughter), won't sleep with him. (Jeeter had sold the girl to him for $7, some cylinder oil, and a few quilts.) He wants help tying Pearl to the bed. The starving Lesters, though, are more interested in getting their hands on the sack of turnips Lov is carrying, and ultimately they do—but not until Ellie May has distracted Lov by sliding her naked bottom toward him across the dirt yard in what will become one of the most tragicomically nasty rape-seduction scenes ever put to paper.
"Ellie May's acting like your old hound used to do when he got the itch," Dude says to Lester. "Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May's making, too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don't it?"
From here, the grotesqueries pile up and up. Dude marries a widowed, lecherous, and much older female preacher—her nose is deformed and looking into her nostrils is like "looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun"—only because he wants to honk the horn on her new car. There are scenes involving rats and corpses; elsewhere, the female preacher is passed around like a sex doll among the men at a fleabag hotel, while Dude and Jeeter sleep in a nearby room; finally, Jeeter, in a futile attempt to clear his land for farming, accidentally kills himself and his wife when a fire he's set burns down their shack.
Clearly, there's a muchness here, a flood of overwrought melodrama that we associate more with pulp fiction than with literary endeavor. Caldwell thought he was merely writing no-holds-barred realism. He wanted the novel to be, as Dan B. Miller notes in his gripping 1995 biography, Erskine Caldwell: The Journey From Tobacco Road, a rebuke to the perfumed "moonlight and magnolias" literature of the south. Yet it's almost impossible to not to read the most ludicrously grim passages of Tobacco Road as very black humor. It can be hard to keep a straight face when encountering bits of dialogue like this:
"Look at them two big holes running down into her face—how does she keep it from raining down in there, you reckon?"
"I'll be damned if I know. Maybe she puts cork stoppers in them to keep the water out."
Caldwell didn't see himself as a comic writer, though. According to Miller, if anyone suggested that his novel made them laugh, Caldwell stalked out of the room.
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.
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.