Guts Benedict

Adam Bradbury

  • The Wrecking Yard by Pinckney Benedict
    Secker, 195 pp, £7.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 436 20062 7
  • Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
    Hamish Hamilton, 630 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 241 13003 4
  • The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
    Picador, 217 pp, £14.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 330 32358 X

Somewhere on the road between Twin Peaks and Faulkner country you might come across Pinckney Benedict hacking out a prickly little clearing for himself in the shadow of some of American fiction’s more established, and more pronounceable, names – Pynchon, Steinbeck and Sam Shepard among them. Pinckney Benedict’s world is a small-town one, real backwoods stuff, an angle which his publishers are not over-anxious to play down. He lives, apparently, on the family farm. The cover picture has him in smart check shirt and braces, no doubt chewing a slug of baccy. Like Pynchon’s and Nelson Algren’s, his writing celebrates tips, junkyards, diners, small-town sheriffs’ offices. ‘Small’ is an understatement. These are virtually ghost towns, with less than their fair share of socially well-adjusted individuals – haunted by small minds and by characters who are, to adapt a phrase, a prong short of a pitchfork. And whereas Pynchon and Algren, and more recently William Vollman, tend to have sought out big city trash, Benedict is more at home among the rocks and trees with God’s own good dirt. His one fully-committed excursion from the bush, ‘At the Alhambra’, describing a vacation in Nicaragua, is his least successful. Even then, the ill-tempered Bowlesian Americans-on-holiday couple spend most of their time observing un-Americans from their hotel balcony and trying to remember where it was the name ‘Alhambra’ came from.

Though there’s an uncertainty about this piece, perhaps a result of the geographical dislocation, it shares a mannerism with others in The Wrecking Yard in that its argument is resolved by the shedding of blood. In this case, a woman accidentally lacerates her hand as she listens anxiously to her husband being duped into entering the Nicaraguan ice-making business. Blood splashes on her yellow sundress, ice is brought to heal the wound and the couple return to the United States. This is typical of Benedict’s narrative rhythms. Fictional climax is denoted by an opening of flesh, a skinning, or a horrible death. When stuck for Marlowe’s next move Chandler, famously, would have someone come through the door toting a gun. Benedict drops bodies out of the sky. It rains dogs, pigs, rabbits, cows and in one instance people. In ‘Rescuing Moon’ Grady goes to spring his old trapping buddy Moon from an asylum (as stark an opposition of town and country as you could ask for). As they make their getaway the car tyres pulverise the warden’s prize rutting rooster and her furious, sexually frustrated assistant lobs a skinned rabbit from a balcony. It bounces off the car and ‘a couple busted bones poke out of the flesh. There is juice on the windshield where it hit.’ In the finely crafted title story, ‘The Wrecking Yard’, rural America’s truck-borne equivalent of the Cornish wreckers go looking for salvage among the bloody meat of a cattle truck, memorably ‘rear-ended by a highballin hog-truck’, and later watch a girl hauled, like so much dead meat, from the wreckage of a car which has flown from the mountain road. This implied comparison of man and beast becomes a redrawing of humanity in the image of red-toothed nature in ‘Horton’s Ape’, where a baboon steals a camera and escapes from its cage, photographing the spectators, devouring a pig and climbing a tree from where it flaunts its mirror-image savagery at the dumb humans. In ‘The Wrecking Yard’ a cop calls the wreckers ‘parasites on accidents, swarming around where blood collects’: but Benedict’s main point is that dead things are dead, whether young girls, stupid cows or furry little animals. Living on a farm, he should know.

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