Undercover: Love Among the Ruins (11/03/77)

Whiskey Man (Viking, 247 pp., $8.95) is a first novel by Howell Raines, a Florida newspaperman. Set in 1932 in Milo, Alabama, a small town in the northern hill country where there were few if any slaves, the story concerns whites whose ancestors resisted the Confederacy during the Civil War, and who themselves have no use for the antebellum which much of the rest of the South fed off of in the years that followed.

The tension implicit in the tale of a Southerner who is hemmed in by a South he will not join, yet who is no longer at home in the fundamentalist town that shaped him animates the protagonist of Whiskey Man—one Brant Laster, who, along with Blake King, his lover since the two of them were fourteen, is back in Milo after finishing college. Laster is the first of his family to get a degree (Milo people, we are told, tend not to leave home unless the government takes them out to fight a war). At the University of Alabama, professors lectured to him about the “hillbilly-nigger alliance” of Reconstruction and offered him entry into “that other South, the world of ease and twilight laughter,” the “flowering of the last Anglo-Saxon aristocracy.” Laster cannot accept his father’s embrace of God, but he can at least keep faith With his past; ranging over what the professors tried to teach him, he thinks to himself of his grandfather, drafted against his will by the slavers of the Confederacy.

“When the war ended my grandfather started walking home from Virginia. In South Carolina, there was a dog in the road. Nearby was a plantation house of the type built by people who had a reason to fight the war. There were people watching from the portico of the house, and my grandfather asked them to give him food and also to speak to their dog on his behalf. They did neither. The dog had its head down and was growling. It was a big dog and meant to kill him, my grandfather judged. The people meant to let it. He was afraid that if he killed their dog, they would kill him. On the other hand, his options were limited. He stunned the dog with the first lick of his staff, popped its head like a watermelon with the second. The people watching from the big house never said a mumbling word.”

Whiskey Man turns on this family legend. Laster wants to see his life in its terms, and the book is about his search for a moment that will allow him to make a choice as clean. Two people define that choice for him: Bluenose Trogdon, a Moonshiner—in Baptist Milo, something of an outcast—to whom Laster becomes very close; and Blake King, intent on marrying Laster, who cannot get free of her. “That other South,” still run by the kind of people who would have watched Laster’s grandfather die, is a world Blake could accept without regret—in fact would have accepted if the rich man she tried to marry while at college in Atlanta hadn’t denied her the chance. Laster knows all about this: he once made a secret visit to Atlanta and watched from the bushes as Blake spent the night with a fraternity boy. It isn’t clear to Laster whether it’s Blake’s betrayal of his South that has eternally corrupted her, or the simple fact that she has slept with other men; few writers have captured the debilitating force of sexual jealousy as well as Raines does, and it hangs over the book like a death sentence—as Laster sees it, passed onto him by Blake, but in truth passed onto both of them by Laster.

Laster surrenders to a summer and fall of obsessive lovemaking with Blake—and while Raines’ writing is never explicit in these scenes, the meetings between Laster and Blake are as sexy as Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” Laster is never far from his friend Bluenose’s whiskey. The lines Laster has drawn around his life begin to blur. Fundamentalists, led by a new preacher, press their advantage in Milo, driving Bluenose further out of the community. While Laster cares nothing for the church, he half shares its belief in mortal sin, though his sense of sin comes not from God but from his idea of the split in the South. He wants to punish the woman whom he thinks has wronged him, and who is now trying to make him assent to her betrayal, and thus join him to it. And like Bluenose’s God-fearing wife, who marks off her husband’s transgressions on the back of a calendar against the day when, according to her Bible (“Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?… Jesus saith… seventy times seven”), she can kill him, Laster wants to banish Blake’s sin and find his own salvation in some cleansing act of vengeance.

Out of this matrix Raines has fashioned a novel that takes its spirit from hillbilly sentiments of blind rebellion and determined estrangement. It moves with a quiet, edgy sense of doom. Whiskey Man is conventional only in its ending—Laster finally leaves his hometown and his lover, lighting out for the territory as too many heroes of American fiction have done too easily in the ninety-two years since Huckleberry Finn was published. Otherwise, the book is balanced perfectly between action and introspection, desire and renunciation. And it is, finally, one of the most convincing sexual novels of recent years—a novel in which sex, for a time, promises to work both as the key to sin and as the key to salvation, and ultimately works as neither.

Rolling Stone, November 3, 1977

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