"When You Were a Man": Pinckney Benedict's Fathers and Sons
Egerton, Katherine, Appalachian Heritage
Through his career, Pinckney Benedict has been both lauded and assailed for his Hobbesian portraits of life in the Southern Mountains. Some voyeuristic readers have devoured these portrayals as if hunting for something nasty, brutish, and short. Others, including Jim Wayne Miller, have argued that Benedict's work requires deep context, a clear vision that can separate Appalachian myth and reality. This vision imbues Benedict's often violent stories with a history of genuine loss. However, some critics have read Benedict's work almost exclusively through a regional lens, without exploring his fiction's other dimensions. In his 1988 essay, "New Generation of Savages in West Virginia," which appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Miller lambasted New York Times Book Review writer, Diane McWhorter, for taking only a "coming-of-age/Freudian approach" (29) to the collection's opening story, "The Sutton Pie Safe." However, McWhorter rightly praised Town Smokes by arguing that Benedict was "clearly putting in for a piece of the Huck Finn legacy." That inheritance, far broader than the phrase "coming of age" implies, includes Huck's final determination to seize both maturity and freedom by "light[ing] out for the Territory ahead of the rest." Just as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn combines Huck's transition from childhood with Twain's sharp satires of nineteenth century America, Benedict's stories demand readers pay as much attention to the boys as to the mountains they inhabit.
Over time, Benedict's style has evolved from Town Smokes' spare cadences to the lush, linguistic opulence of "Bridge of Sighs" (Zoetrope, 2007, New Stories from the South, 2008; The Year's Best) and "The Angel's Trumpet," which appears on pages 25 to 39 of this issue of this magazine. Throughout his career, however, Benedict's truest subject has been boyhood, and the lengths to which a man will go to keep a son safe and then send that son out to be a man. Mothers may be absent, loving, or hostile, and other men may step in to set a child's foot on the path. At times, boys face a threatening world armed only with memories. But through these travails, boys emerge from Benedict's stories roughly intact-scarred, but stronger than they were before. For these Huck Finns, Pap may sometimes be an unreliable sot, but he is not without affection. Far from local color, these tales are as old as human telling and as universal as story itself.
From Town Smokes, published when he was just twenty-three, fresh from Princeton and the tutelage of Joyce Carol Oates, to his most recent work, Benedict traverses a complex, liminal territory. His characters constantly teeter between mountain and valley, between human and animal, and between life and death. In the world of Benedict's stories, the outwardly monstrous are often those most deserving of love, and if children's main purpose on earth were to portray innocence, he would have no use for them. From "The Sutton Pie Safe," which opens Town Smokes, Benedict has lavished his attention on sons and fathers, the sad, often solitary love that brings them together, and the harsh world that tries--and fails--to drive them apart. While children' own sins weigh their fathers down and love sometimes bears a whip, Benedict's boys reap a harvest of paternal devotion.
Benedict's boys are beloved by their fathers, who are often left to raise them alone. When present, mothers provide complications, especially when they are complicit with the world's demands that a man be less than he is. In "The Sutton Pie Safe," Cates Albright's mother betrays her husband's values by selling a piece of family history to a woman who would at once appropriate and shame that history. Jack Albright tells Mrs. Hanson, the woman who offered three hundred dollars for the antique pie safe, "[y]ou ought not try to buy what hasn't been put up for sale," but he saves his harshest scorn for his wife when he says "[g]o ahead and sell the damn breadbox if you want, but just don't apologize for me" (10). …