I’ve owned this book for years, and now that I’ve finally read it I feel a little creeped out having lived so long in the presence of such a strange, alarming little book. It’s a good book – a very good book – but startling and disturbing just the same.
This novel is the story of Ty Ty Walden (please, oh please let this be an intentional allusion to the other Walden – the Transcendentalist one) and his wayward, penniless brood. Think of Ty Ty as a variation on Pa Joad, but less articulate. The novel opens with Ty Ty and his adult sons, Buck and Shaw, surveying their plot of land and debating about where to dig the next enormous hole. Ty Ty, we learn, is sure that he can find gold on his property. He has been digging for fifteen years, and by now his land is so torn up that he can barely use any of it for farming – but he can’t bear to stop digging. Rather than feed his family, Ty Ty is literally throwing his own labor and that of his sons into an empty hole that seems to represent faith – not religious faith, though more on that later, but faith in himself and in the idea that all of his hard work will someday be rewarded with wealth and freedom. Ty Ty doesn’t talk much about religious faith, but he has a great deal to say about patience.
Incidentally, since we’re talking about holes and God and “the other Walden,” I might as well mention this statement of Thoreau’s: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?” (italics mine). Thoreau poo-poos the generally accepted idea that land is valuable because it can yield food, support livestock, and stimulate the economy, focusing instead on the freedom we lose when we tie ourselves to a plot of land and to the litany of chores the land demands. The freedom Thoreau seeks is entirely contemplative; Ty Ty, it seems, has never pondered anything more complex than his daughter-in-law’s breasts. And as far as the idea that the holes on Ty Ty’s land are suggestive of graves, I did not see this symbolism directly in the text, though it’s true that some members of the Walden family are dead by the time the book ends – and holes foreshadowing graves is reasonable enough.
Soon, Pluto Swint shows up. Pluto is monstrously obese, running for sheriff, and in love with one of Ty Ty’s daughters – the teenaged one that everyone calls Darling Jill. Pluto informs Ty Ty that albinos have the magical ability to detect the presence of gold, adding that he has heard from a friend of a friend that there is an albino nearby. Some hilariously appalling dialogue ensues. From Pluto: “I don’t reckon you’d have any trouble catching him, but it wouldn’t do any harm to tie him up a little before starting back. He lives in the swamp, and he might not like the feel of solid ground” (6). From Ty Ty: “We’re going to get that all-white man if I have to bust a gut getting there. But there’s not going to be any of this conjur hocus-pocus mixed up in it. We’re going about this business scientifically” (7). Shaw briefly reminds Ty Ty that he had promised to provide some food for the “darkies,” who have not had anything to eat in some time and have threatened to eat Ty Ty’s only remaining mule if they are not fed soon. Ty Ty’s reply: “Now, son, you know good and well I ain’t got time to be worrying about darkies eating… We’ve got to get down to the swamps and catch that albino before he gets away… I ain’t going to have darkies worrying me about rations at a time like this” (8). And yep, don’t you worry – lots of black-white juxtaposition will be delivered by the middle of the novel. You’ll notice it, I promise – even if you’re that kid in English class who always says, “But I just like reading books for the story.”
This opening chapter is like nothing else I’ve ever read, and the novel continued to stun me throughout. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of fiction that so starkly portrays human beings driven forward by their most basic drives: hunger and sex. Competition among individuals for limited resources propels this novel forward just as surely as it propels natural selection. Among the “resources” present in the Walden family are daughters Rosamond and Darling Jill and daughter-in-law Griselda. Rosamond seems not to be much of a catch, judging by her husband’s tendency to have sex with Darling Jill while Rosamond is napping in the next room (and also her tendency to “get uppity and start talking about the God damn sacredness of approaching a woman, or some such talk” ), but Griselda and Darling Jill are much in demand. In a scene that clearly echoes the story of David and Bathsheba, Darling Jill bathes in a tub on the back porch of the family’s shack. When she discovers that he’s there, she stares at him for several seconds while he stammers, then throws a sudsy rag at him while yelling at the assembled masses, “He’s always trying to put his hands on me and squeeze something, or else trying to sneak up on me and grab me while I’m naked. I’ve never seen such a man” (42).
Darling Jill (whose suitors, besides Pluto and her brother-in-law, Will, include the albino, whose name is Dave) might never have seen such a man, but Griselda sure has. Griselda is Buck’s wife, and when she isn’t having her clothes ripped to shreds right off her body by her brother-in-law Will (yep, same brother-in-law) in a disturbing but very powerful scene, she is pleading with Ty Ty to stop slinking around trying to catch glimpses of her breasts and fending off the oldest son in the family, Jim Leslie, who left home many years ago to marry a wealthy woman and generally denies all affiliation with his family, though he makes an exception to that policy long enough to show up and attempt to kidnap Griselda.
I don’t shock easily, and this novel didn’t shock me as much as it stunned me. Its beauty is entirely a function of its boldness. Not only do many of the characters in this novel act out their anger and their lust and their competitive drives more openly than characters in any other literary fiction I’ve read, but they also sit down afterwards and talk about what happened. They don’t often say the sorts of things you or I might say, but it is clear that, like all humans, these characters are rational animals. After Will tears Griselda’s clothes off (and then dies – long story), Griselda confesses to Ty Ty first that Will’s assault (my word, not hers) made her feel a passion for him that she has never felt or imagined for any other man, and second that, “The trouble with people is that they try to fool themselves into believing that they’re different from the way God made them. You go to church and a preacher tells you things that deep down in your heart you know ain’t so. But most people are so dead inside that they believe it and try to make everybody else live that way. People ought to live like God made us to live. When you sit down by yourself and feel what’s in you, that’s the real way to live. It’s feeling… People have got to feel for themselves as God made them to feel” (183). Like the novel as a whole, this passage is not P.C. in any way. Does it legitimize rape culture? Absolutely. Do I approve of it? Nope. But I do know that real people, myself included, sometimes feel things that are not P.C., and there is something wonderful in a novelist who can so brutally capture the essence of man-as-organism, the pure id, driven only by a need to couple with the strongest, boldest partner available and pass along its genetic material to the next generation and then, a few paragraphs later, gather the cast of characters on the back porch to discuss with fearless honesty what it feels like to be part beast while gazing out at a field full of holes.
The title, by the way, refers to the fact that when Ty Ty first started farming, he designated one acre as an offering to God. The profits of whatever crops were produced on that acre were always given to the church (I can’t imagine any scenario in which Ty Ty Walden is capable of the math involved in this transaction, but that’s a question for another day). When Ty Ty started digging up his land, he occasionally found that he needed to move God’s little acre around so it wouldn’t interfere with his plan to dig up every single inch of his property. Ironically (yet plausibly), his reason for moving God’s little acre had nothing to do with spirituality; Ty Ty just wanted to make sure that any gold he found on his property would be his, not God’s.
At the same time, there is something strangely spiritual about Ty Ty Walden. With the exception of his peeking at Griselda, he largely stays out of the fray in his raucous family. He never loses faith that he will find gold on his land, making him a Don Quixote figure of sorts – and it’s hard not to admire a Don Quixote figure at least a little. He makes a few speeches that balance folksy wisdom with some blithering nonsense that suggest he has no idea what anything means. He humbles himself, asking his oldest son for money when his son refuses even to acknowledge him on the street. He’s willing to drop everything (“everything” being the fruitless work of digging for gold, plus the ongoing task of starving) to go off for ten hours in search of a vaguely-described albino who lives in a swamp, and then of all things, he finds him. Against all odds, he finds him.