Can you imagine a literary stew made from a base stock of Studs Lonigan and Tobacco Road and spiced with liberal dashes of Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller? If so, you have a good fix on the late Earl Thompson's 1971 National Book Award nominee A Garden of Sand and its sequel, Tattoo (1974)--blood rare evocations of the impoverished, seamy underside of life in the American heartland and deep south from the Depression through the early stages of the Korean War. Although unevenly written and, in many ways, unpolished and undisciplined, both novels thunder along with the explosive energy of an NBA fast break. Disturbingly violent, sexually explicit, unapologetically raunchy, these two novels are as down and dirty as they come.
The squeamish should think twice before setting foot in Thompson's X-rated territory. And those who do decide to step in may find themselves feeling ashamed of the fascination these propulsively readable stories hold.
Garden tracks the childhood and preadolescence of its young hero, sexually-obsessed Jacky MacDeramid (a sort of white-trash, gentile Portnoy), growing up on neglect and cheeseburgers in the scrublands of Kansas in the 1930s--alternately beaten and taught by Bill, his brutal, one-testicled stepfather and indulged by his mother, Wilma, a failed waitress-turned-whore who dumps baby Jacky on the doorstep of his impoverished grandparents early on. A world so dirt poor and dirt common as to make Tobacco Road seem like the greener grass on the other side of the fence.
The sexually precocious Jacky is horny even as an infant and, once he gets a peek at his gorgeous mother who comes to reclaim him when he is eight ("Blood pounded in his head...the tip of his rigid little thing, sticking straight out, hurting in its hardness..."), his entire existence focuses on seducing her--which he does, several times before puberty, gradually casting Wilma whose "long legs seemed to grow right out of her high-heels" in the dual roles of mother and mistress. Thompson manages to make this incestuous relationship--the novel's dramatic core--credible, strangely inoffensive, somehow even touching, and fueled by an ambivalent mixture of sin and defiance.
"Are you mad at me?", Jacky asked afterwards.
She shook her head no. "Let me get up," she said, trying to rise. She opened her eyes and for the first time looked at the face near hers. She had borne him, this strange, hard, skinny boy with a look in his eyes she had known since he was only a few months old. She brushed back the damp hair that stuck to his brow. "This is crazy. You know that?"
Man and God. They will not look. to think of such a thing makes them want to kill. They would have tarred and feathered the woman and the boy had they known...(but) he scorned such foolish angry men and antic gods...
Later, the bubbling little pot of premature testosterone also bonks one of mom's fellow hookers who gets pissed off when she discovers that he is not yet 12 years old--just one more startling event among dozens in a prepubescent sexual odyssey that finds Jacky navigating all the coves and peninsulas of the failed American Dream, a seedy coastline running through Kansas, Texas, and the Gulf States and peopled with drunks, hoodlums, perverts, freaks, hookers, pimps, drug addicts, and other assorted low-lifes.
Tattoo picks up Jacky's steamy surge through adolescence during the last year of World War II and opens with him living in a trailer camp in Wichita ("somewhere up an unnamed niggertown alley") with his grandparents and his mother. His last name changes from Macderamid to Andersen, but he's still the same walking hard-on in search of any ol' receptacle available. Although only 14, he enlists in the navy "hopin' to kill some slants before the war ends" and to escape that prison of poverty that is his family life and establish a sense of self worth--goals thwarted by the equally rigid limitations of low rank military life.
Jacky never sees combat but instead embarks on a tour of duty that, between 1945 and 1951, deposits him in porno pots from California to Okinawa, Shanghai, and Tsingtao. Here, Thompson lets it all hang out, creating searingly honest episodes of enlisted men brawling and whoring in a shell-shocked postwar world that approach a sort of profane poetry.
His big bare white ass shown pinkly above the girl's spread knees...
In his dreams he had beat her big freckled ass with the flat of his samurai sword until she blubbered and begged...
Eventually discharged, Jacky goes to college, knocks up Sharon, a well-stacked sweater queen, whom he marries, but loses her when she finds love scratches on his back courtesy of a local nympho. Broke and alone, he joins the army, tours Germany and Korea, eventually washes out of OCS, and returns home to study art at the University of Kansas.
Through Jacky's picaresque wanderings, Thompson exposes the violent, frustrating world of have-nots and the abject misery that permeates their existence--an atavistic throwback to the turn-of-the-century naturalism of Dreiser and Stephen Crane that also parallels the gritty determinism of twentieth century novelists James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren (to whom Garden is dedicated). No matter hard Jacky tries to rise above white trash values and aspire to WASP materialism, his origins are as indelibly etched on him as a pattern hot-needled on his bicep, and, although he escapes the former, he is denied the latter.
Trapped between poverty that was a personal moral failure and the lure of material reward for citizenship they could never achieve, they were outsiders wherever they moved. Their history was a crazy spider's web of fact, fantasy conceived cinematically, instinctive self-protective lies, and truth shaded toward a modest, acceptable American dream.
Although both novels are relentlessly energetic, they are also sometimes exhausting, episodic to the extreme, repetitive (Thompson has a tendency to cover the same repulsively violent ground and write the same clinically explicit sexual scenes over and over), and burgeoning with chunks both large and small of awkward prose and first draft dialogue ("...then he ran the hoist back up as Tomkins' taxi wobbled away, him urging the young man at the machinery to greater speed...").
Yet, while Garden and Tattoo are undeniably unliterary in many ways, their unpretentiousness and raw conversational tone make them triumphs of gross realism--a quality reinforced by Thompson's frequent injections of the era's popular culture into his narrative: uncolored Oleo margarine in plastic bags with a little dab of yellow dye you had to massage into the cream-colored glop to make it look like butter. Powdered milk, Nehi grape, and relief lines. Folk "heroes" like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. Lucky Strike Greens and Falstaff beer. "Slap the Jap and Stun the Hun" and Woody Guthrie singing "The Good Reuban James". One of the best occurs when Jacky's grandpa, a "Jacobin-Wobbly-Populist-agnostic-bullhead" whose personal heroes are "share the wealth" demagogues Huey Long and Dr. Frances Townsend and whose devil incarnate Franklin Roosevelt "can't do nothin fuckin' right", savagely curses FDR for letting the army "rile up" the Martians during Orson Welles 1938 radio hoax.
But it is always the urgency and pain of human beings that dominates the elaborate historical architecture. Whether it is Jacky dropping in one night on a sex-starved old woman who lives in a nearby trailer to find her butchered on her living room floor with her pet cats licking up her blood, or a squad of navy recruits who decide to torment and beat a fat old prostitute, Thompson's scenarios are as vital and obscene as a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
Yet, even in the consistently dismal physical and moral landscape he paints--a landscape where denial of access to a decent life distorts and poisons human relationships--Thompson invests Jacky with a capacity to love, independence, and an essential honesty. Although humiliation and defeat are elemental facts of his life, he nonetheless survives, even grows, like a "hardy plant in a garden of sand", Thompson's metaphor for his protagonist and his world. The character in modern fiction closest to Jacky is probably Studs Lonigan though Studs would be afraid to even fantasize about the things that Jacky does in fact.
Still, given the narratives' sensational nature, there are no cheap giggles--only real pain both for Jacky and the reader who, should he halfway through become overwhelmed or disenchanted with either of these incontinent books, would be well-advised to heed Jacky's stepfather's counsel: "Tough it out, kid, tough it out."