Or, Nothing Good Happens up at the Old Quarry
Tom Janikowski’s The Crawford County Sketchbook (2015) is a little Red Hen book—one of those very literary, character driven, language-as-deadly-weapon novels in which nothing much happens—virtuous man murdered by sociopathic sheriff. You know, small town stuff. Multiple (many, many), apparently randomly arranged narratives pile up, building a kaleidoscopic vision of a tiny backwater Southern town in which the strangest, yet strangely plausible, things happen.
Red Hen is a prestigious small press specializing in literary novels and poetry. Literary novels are frequently described as character driven rather than plot driven. The great majority of novels produced and sold are commercial novels that are meant to be read for fun—thrillers, for instance, in which the story line is fairly linear and the villains are sinister and the hero cunning and brave and there’s money changing hands and guns blasting and cars and bodies flying everywhere, maybe a vampire or two—action, action, action. Literary novels are said to be more staid. The characters hardly ever blow up anything and if they steal money they are just as likely to stow it in a mattress for sixty years until some slow moving nephew discovers the loot and does something silly like burn it in a convenient wood stove. A reader who wants a fast paced Man in a Hole novel may complain that literary characters just sit around pondering existential realities. Yet, for patient readers, literary novels are capable of wide-eyed explorations of violence and perversity.
In The Crawford County Sketchbook, each impressionistic chapter is narrated by a different character, with a few returning to contribute an additional fragment. The reader has to read closely to figure out who these people are and how they are connected. The timeline is not straightforward. The events do not fit neatly together. The chief event of the novel, the murder of Peter Switchback, is not detailed, and the lead up to and aftermath of the murder have to be sifted from the accretion of gossip, testimony, and dream. There is also a lengthy and compelling narrative about a man who swallows a finger not belonging to himself that sidetracks the scattershot accounts of the Switchback murder, echoing without paralleling the primary story line. This is the closest the novel gets to telling a story from beginning to end, yet even this relatively traditional narrative is full of tangents, and the physical action, aside from finger swallowing and a well-aimed punch, consists mostly of laying in the grass.
Each character’s account is heavy with interior reflection, slow, keen, damaged, terrifying, and all, except maybe Peter Switchback, an educated man, circumscribed by the narrow, stifling confines of a small rural town. In the literary mode, Janikowski has taken small town stuff—rape, murder, grisly farm accidents—and used it to explore the isolation of the inarticulate. Crawford County is populated by people bursting with insight they have little ability to express, let alone share; rage and resentment that can only be turned to violence; native benevolence limited and deformed by ignorance.
The characters are very carefully delineated by their language. Some speak in a thick dialect, some in lines of poetry. Ignorance and intelligence, which do not necessarily align, are revealed in the expressions of half-formed thought—strivings toward the sublime or urgent do-loops of instinctual fear. Language is instrumental as a literary device and also as a fundamental component in the personalities of Crawford County—yes, even as a deadly weapon if you consider Sheriff Morgan’s ruminations, going round and round in his murderous squirrel cage of brain, to be what drives him to commit revenge, the pointless end game of generations of Morgans. Impulse founded on a lifelong meditation of virtue is no match for cunning nurtured like an evil sourdough.
Crawford County is described in its prelude as having sold its soul for a bowl of grits, a “defeated expanse of God’s creation.” Whether a person thrives there depends on their ability to perceive its meager sources of contentment; the ambitious, the restless see only dust and poverty, a gothic wilderness. The narrator illustrates his point with an anecdote about a dismemberment, hilarity springing from the horror as the only adequate response. In the bookend farm accident, another dismemberment, the response is mysterious—perhaps a flailing and incomprehensible attempt at humor—and disastrous. Some folks, it seems, are simply doomed, deprived of the gift of knowing how to wring happiness from living. Turning away from these people, all people, in all their variety, Janikowski suggests, is a form of self-denial, of self-imposed ignorance and isolation.