A Dream of a Small but Unlost Town

American Folklore, the Oral Tradition, Randy Jokes, Vladimir Nabokov, Greek Mythology, Arkansas, William Faulkner, Hillbillies, Yoknapatawpha County, Nostalgia, Incest, Peckers, Pestles and Tallywackers, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, The O.C., History Repeating Itself, Anti-Progress, Gregor Samsa, Erskine Caldwell, Comic Romance, Romantic Comedy and Tragicomedy, Gabriel García Márquez, Franz Kafka, Chism’s Dew, Holy House, Lolita, the Simple, Pastoral Life

A Dream of a Small but Unlost Town

Izzy Grinspan
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About a hundred years ago, a dirty joke was making the rounds in Green Forest, Arkansas. It found a home in the brain of young Fred High, where it remained embedded for decades. In 1953, Fred got it out, dusted it off, and related it to the folklorist Vance Randolph, who promptly anthologized it. The joke, in Fred’s words, goes like this:

One time there was a pretty little girl that lived in the country, and she didn’t know much of anything. So then a sheep-herder come along, and he showed her his pecker. “What is that thing?” she says, and the boy told her it is called Jenkin-Horn. He was one of these fellows that always wears a buck-skin string round his waist for luck, and the girl thought Jenkin-Horn was strapped onto him.

The sheep-herder come around pretty often for a while, and that girl sure was crazy about Jenkin-Horn. One day the fellow says he is going to live somewheres out West. The girl didn’t care if he went or not, but she wanted him to leave Jenkin-Horn for her to play with. They had quite a tussle about it, and when he got on his horse the girl run after him a-hollering for Jenkin-Horn. Well, when they come to the ford a bass happened to jump just then, and she thought Jenkin-Horn had fell in the river. The sheep-herder rode on down the trail, but the girl didn’t pay him no mind.

Pretty soon a preacher come along, and he seen her a-crying and splashing around in the water. He asked her what is the matter, and she says Jenkin-Horn is lost. The preacher couldn’t make out what the girl meant, but Jenkin-Horn must be something mighty important, so he started to help her hunt for it. Pretty soon the preacher got his pants caught on a sycamore stub. And when the pants tore loose, the girl seen Jenkin-Horn sticking out between the preacher’s legs. “There it is!” she hollered. “You old thief, you’ve got Jenkin-Horn tied on you!”

At the end of the transcription in Randolph’s book, Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1954), an annotator helpfully points out that in other forms of this joke, “the seducer’s penis is given a variety of names—combing machine, frenolle, Jenkin-Horn.” The improbability of these options notwithstanding (combing machine?), what makes this joke funny is the wordplay made possible by the act of naming the, you know, Jenkin-Horn.

By introducing his innocent lover to Jenkin-Horn, the shepherd unwittingly brings a rival into the relationship. He also set up the punch line, since the preacher wouldn’t have helped the girl look for the missing object if it had a more obvious name. But with this mysterious fellow, Jenkin-Horn (or combing machine, or frenolle) as a character, the joke gets its interior humor—the woman who doesn’t care if her lover moves away, as long as he leaves behind his J-H—and the punch line of the J-H transference. It also hints at social commentary: after all, is “Jenkin-Horn” any less goofy than “pecker”? We’re always a little squirmy when talking about sex; this joke satirizes the lengths to which we’ll go to avoid using the clinical terms.

Several years before Fred High recounted this tale to Vance Randolph, a twelve-year-old son of Arkansas named Donald Harington contracted meningococcal meningitis. Young Harington survived to author thirteen books about the Arkansas Ozarks, but he lost his hearing. Up until his illness, he’d spent his summers sitting on the porch of his grandparents’ general store in Drakes Creek, Arkansas, listening to folks tell stories. Now he was left with just the memory of sound, ending abruptly in 1948. Over the course of his lifetime, the old speech patterns of the Ozarks would die out, but he wouldn’t be able to hear them go. Instead, he’d have the old oral tradition secured in his brain, anthologized like the jokes Vance Randolph collected.

All of Harington’s stories involve the invented town of Stay More, Arkansas, which is hard to find and equally hard to leave. For better or worse, the same can be said of his novels: they might not be as widely read as they deserve, but since characters and plots slip from book to book, readers often end up consuming his entire back catalogue. Harington’s obscurity has never sat well with publishers—he bounced around between seven different houses in the past three decades. Recently, though, Toby Press has taken over the rights to nearly all his work, bringing out ten of his novels in the past two years.

Vance Randolph reported bawdy jokes word for word; Harington, who has called Randolph his “spiritual father,” elaborates on them. In love with wordplay, he takes the Jenkin-Horn technique and runs with it, turning the earthy word-games people play while telling dirty stories on the front porch into the kind of twisty diction worthy of Nabokov. (Harington published Ekaterina, a gender-reversed Caucasus-meets-Ozarks version of Lolita, in 1993.)

Take, for example, the little rhyme by Hoppy Boyd in Harington’s newest novel, The Pitcher Shower. In 1930s Arkansas, Hoppy drives from town to town, equipped with a screen and several reels of “motion pitchers,” which he shows for a dime. Women love him, but due to some embarrassing experiences in his youth, he’s pretty sure that any girl he takes to bed will be utterly disappointed. The local maidens, with their Ozark accents, ask to “jine” (as in “join”) him, and Hoppy dreams of responding with this rhyme: “If we was to recline with you supine and our laigs intertwine, you might opine that your design was mighty fine but mine was out of line.”

Or take Harington’s 1972 masterpiece, Some Other Place, The Right Place (or SOP TRIP, as Harington himself abbreviates it). Using a tangle of different narrative voices, SOP TRIP tells the story of backwoods poet Daniel Lyam Montross, a sort of American John Clare. Montross was born in Connecticut, moved to Vermont, went down to North Carolina, and ended up in Stay More, Arkansas. In each town, there were slightly different names for the male and female sexual anatomy: “perkin” and “vale” in Dudleytown, Connecticut; “picket” and “velvet” in Five Corners, Vermont; and “pestle” and “vault” in Lost Cove, North Carolina. In Stay More, the wordplay gets more complicated, because Montross (as one of the narrators) has asked the novel’s other narrators to shield the identity of his final home. They refer to the town as “Stick Around,” and everything about it is hidden including the special names used there. When asked, Montross says only, grinning, that the male part is private and the female part veiled.

When not referencing Nabokov, critics compare Harington to either Faulkner or García Márquez. This is because Stay More, a.k.a. Stick Around, the place where Hoppy Boyd was born and Daniel Lyam Montross is buried, is Harington’s Yoknapatawpha and Macondo. Both references are fair although the Faulkner one is a bit deceptive: Harington is a Southern writer in that he focuses on a town in Arkansas, but he isn’t interested in Southernness the way Faulkner was. There are, for example, almost no discussions of race in Harington: everyone in tiny Stay More is white. And while Faulkner wanted to talk about the way his fictional county fit into the history of the nation, Harington avoids American history as much as possible except when it furthers the plot.

He is, however, obsessed with the history of his fictional village, which he lays out for us in his 1975 novel The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (TAO TAO, in Harington’s system of abbreviation). An epic about the life of a town, TAO TAO is Harington’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the pioneer Jacob Ingledew is its José Arcadio Buendía. Wise but taciturn Jacob Ingledew founds Stay More, develops it with the help of several other families, and ultimately represents it as governor of the state of Arkansas. His relatives, themselves taciturn although not always wise, populate both the town and all of Harington’s novels.

An art history professor, Harington has structured TAO TAO as an academic study of architecture that just happens to veer off now and then into comic romance, romantic tragedy, and occasionally, when possible, tragicomedy. Each chapter begins with a scholarly discussion of a building in Stay More, from the double thatched huts of Fanshaw, the last Native American of the Stay More region, to the mysterious geodesic dome inhabited by Jacob’s twentieth-century descendent Vernon Ingledew. Even with this high tone, however, Harington still loves his language games. There’s a lot of sex in TAO TAO—the Ingledew men are always worrying about their “tallywhackers”—but there’s also a lot of etymology. Harington uses both to answer the central question of TAO TAO, which is the central question of all backward-looking epics: how did things get to be the way they are?

Early in TAO TAO, our narrator delivers a lecture on the root of the Ozark region’s name. Fanshaw, a member of the Osage tribe, lives in a home made out of branches from the bois d’arc, or “bodark,” tree. Ark, we’re told, comes from the Indo-European root arkw.

In almost all Indo-European languages, arkw is the root of such words as arc, arcade, arch, architecture, archer (shooter of arrow), arciform, arcuate, etc. Arc is also an obsolete form of ark, which meant originally a chest, box, coffer, and hence a place of refuge, as in the Biblical Noah’s vessel and as in all over this present book….

Now might be the time to point out that Harington’s novels are all self-referential. The line above, in fact, is possibly the least dramatic trick he plays with metafiction in all his works. Note, by the way, that Stay More is absolutely a place of refuge. That’s why its relationship to history is so different from Yoknapatawpha County’s: while Faulkner’s invented region blazes through events like the Civil War, Harington’s does its best to avoid them.

The name of our state, Arkansas, is thought to mean in Indian the smoky, bow-shaped river, since Kansas means smoky river and ark means bow (although we should all know that Arkansas does not rhyme with Kansas and is accented on the first syllable). The name of our region, the Ozarks, is said by one early authority (Schoolcraft, who should know) to be compounded from “Osage” (our Indian again) and “Arkansas,” which makes just as much sense as the usual idea that it comes from the French, Aux Arc. Therefore, when we speak of “the bois d’arc in the arciform architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks,” every unit in this sentence can be traced to the same root.

Tracing things to their roots is a primary Harington theme. In Stay More it’s particularly easy because no one strays too far from his roots in the first place. Generations of Ingledews struggle with the same problems, some Stay More–specific—twice, the town runs out of lamp oil and spends a decade in darkness—and some universal. With each new generation, though, the Ingledew characteristics mutate, until Bevis, Raymond, and Tearle Ingledew are as disparate as the words “architecture,” “Arkansas,” and “Ozarks.”

Which is why it’s important that ark also means a place of refuge. Outside the shade of the bodark trees, up from Stay More’s holler, Jacob Ingledew’s descendents could get scattered among the citizens of the world, removed from each other except in the case of a happy accident. After all, how often do you hear the phrase “the architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks”? As long as they remain in their small town, though, the Stay Morons (Harington’s affectionate term for them) are near their origins and near each other. Their family stories become essential because they are the stories of the town. Jacob’s courtship of Sarah Swain becomes an origin myth rather than just a sweet moment in his youth. That awkwardness when a friend announces that she looks just like her grandma, and you’ve never met her grandma so the resemblance means absolutely nothing to you—that never happens in Stay More. (In fact, in Stay More, her grandma is probably your grandma as well.)

This could all come across as terribly reactionary: white people hiding in the Arkansas woods, avoiding the complications of reality, concealing themselves from contemporary history. But Harington is writing in a tradition far older than any Bible Belt stereotypes. His novels are all about Arcadia, the unspoiled rural paradise of Greek myth and early modern literature. Arcadia is utterly removed from not only history but civilization as a whole. In Greek myth, it’s ruled by Pan, shepherd god of pastoral orgies, pranks, and, I think it’s safe to assume, Jenkin-Horn jokes. Later literary Arcadias are defined by their inaccessibility—they’re lost to humans, who remember them wistfully.

At the end of TAO TAO, Jacob’s last descendant, Vernon Ingledew, travels to Italy with his cousin/mistress Jelena. There, they discover an ancient Roman text called The Archaic Architecture of Arcadia, which tells the story of a rural family called Anqualdou, headed by a patriarch named Iakobus. Because Harington has never met a meta he didn’t like, the text ends with Iakobus’s last living relative, Vernealos, discovering an ancient Persian manuscript containing a similar tale. What’s key here is the description of the author of this work: “a Roman writing at the time of the Decline of the Roman Empire, writing out of nostalgia because of the contrast between his life and the life of ancient Arcadia.”

Nostalgia is the primary mode for talking about Stay More, which became a relic almost as soon as it became a town. In fact, Jacob Ingledew and his wife Sarah, displaced to the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, are credited with inventing both the expressions “old-timey” and “them were the days,” thus starting an epidemic of nostalgia that would sweep the South towards the end of the Civil War. All of Harington’s novels are narrated from a time after the fall of Stay More. “All my towns are fallen,” writes the poet Daniel Lyam Montross in SOP TRIP, and he might as well be speaking for Harington.

Montross in particular has earned his nostalgia: he’s dead, having been fatally shot in 1953. If anyone can’t go back, it’s him. But as a ghost, he can witness all sorts of events that would be off-limits to a flesh-and-blood storyteller. For example, he can travel up and down the East Coast, haunting a hotel as far afield as Pittsburgh (in Ekaterina, the aforementioned Lolita-retelling). He can skip around in time, observing his life as a preverbal infant or a grizzled old hermit, moving forward to watch his granddaughter Diana grow up—watching, in fact, as she decides to follow his own life’s trajectory by camping in each of the ghost towns where he once lived. And he can be channeled through living creatures, taking over their bodies to communicate, as he does with a Boy Scout named Day in SOP TRIP and with an elderly cat named Morris in Ekaterina.

Ghost stories occupy a similar place in the oral tradition to bawdy tales, their formulas passed down in the schoolyard or barroom. And Harington’s narrative tricks with ghost story conventions resemble the games he plays with dirty jokes. Many of the metafictive moments in SOP TRIP and Ekaterina come when Montross finds that he needs a real live person to complete some sort of task. The familiar he acquires in both novels is a down-at-the-heels art history professor who writes books about a small Ozark hamlet. In SOP TRIP, he names this personage G, explaining:

Let it stand for Gumshoe, for Guide, for Guru, for Gardener, for Guzzler, for Gallynipper, for whatever you like. I’m in a hurry; out of your respect for secrecy and my disinclination to cast about for some such ludicrous anagrammatization as “Danian Goldthorn” or “Hondio Grantland” or—in a hurry, I said—“Thorndolan Gandi,” I’ll simply call you “G.”

Readers with a pencil handy shouldn’t take too long to turn “Thorndolan Gandi” into the name of a certain bard of Stay More (one familiar with the wordplay tricks of the great Vivian Darkbloom). But G isn’t the author; he’s just a pawn conjured to help the plot along.

Such nods to the world outside the novel make SOP TRIP genuinely spooky—they’re related to the moment in campfire storytelling when the speaker, having captured your complete attention with a tale of ghosts, suddenly throws the flashlight aside and grabs you. Much of SOP TRIP concerns the reality of Montross’s granddaughter, Diana, and her boyfriend, Day: do they both exist? does either of them? Diana doubts, with reason, that she’s actually managed to meet and fall in love with a Boy Scout who can channel the ghost of her grandfather. Day doubts, equally logically, that a rich, beautiful older woman has actually whisked him off to tour ghost towns in her Porsche. The clues amassed by G, hot on their trail, are of no help: we learn that Day might have died, that Diana might have died, that Diana is pregnant with the dead Day’s baby. As in the best ghost stories, the suspense increases with every revelation. And then, at the end, the sublime, absurd joke hits us: of course Day and Diana aren’t real! They’re characters in a novel.

Those who groan whenever characters on the teen soap The O.C. reference their favorite characters on the teen soap The Valley may find this irritating. But SOP TRIP’s complicated relationship with the world outside the book draws us in as readers, making us conscious that we’re participating in the telling of a story. It forces us into a more active role: we’re the campfire audience—tensed, waiting to see how the narrator will spook us. With metafictive techniques drawn from ghost stories, as with wordplay taken from dirty jokes, Harington recasts the ancient techniques of the oral tradition as postmodern literary devices.

This allows him to avoid the Cletus trap. In America, certain versions of Arcadia have a bad reputation. We might like the Midwest: sturdy farmhouses, fresh milk, greenery. But the poor, rural South makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Even attempts to reclaim the stereotypes of the South—the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, for example—still play on the same nervous themes: incest, moonshine, pickup trucks. Our national identity depends too much on progress, and thus we tend to see anyone who would choose to live in a ramshackle mountainside cabin as touched in the head.

In part, this is thanks to literature. Harington has said that the Southern writer he read most as a child was not Faulkner but Erskine Caldwell. Caldwell isn’t much loved these days. His lurid 1930s novels, the most famous of which are Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, popularized hillbilly stereotypes for the nation. Imagine if The Grapes of Wrath had been written by someone with no sympathy for the Joads; after all, maybe if they’d all gotten jobs, they wouldn’t be so darn poor. Or imagine if The Sound and the Fury were a novel about simple-minded Benjy’s naughty crush on his slutty sister, written in tough-guy prose by Ernest Hemingway. People loved this stuff in the first half of the twentieth century, but its popularity did little for the reputation of poor Southern whites.

Harington doesn’t shy away from the darker side of bucolic living. The people of Stay More fear progress, rendered in TAO TAO as two plodding, inevitable, capitalized syllables: “PROG RESS.” “Everything new, everything progressive or forward-looking, was anathema to those people,” explains the narrator, “and who are we to fault them? ‘Stay More’ is synonymous with ‘Status Quo.’” (It’s ironic that nostalgia was invented by Jacob Ingledew, since he founded one of the few places in the world where it’s unnecessary.) Out in the wild hills, the Stay Morons are able to hide from time even if it means remaining isolated from the rest of the world.

The incest stereotype associated with hillbillies comes from that isolation, and indeed, incest appears throughout the Stay More novels. SOP TRIP’s bleakest, most Caldwell-like chapter concerns Montross’s affair with his simple-minded sister, whom he impregnates. At book’s end, we learn—serious spoiler alert—that Diana is not only his granddaughter but also his daughter. This is disturbing, but Harington also uses incest in a lighthearted way. His young characters often have their first romantic encounters with siblings or embarrass their parents with accidental sexual behavior—not unlike some of the randy characters in jokes collected by Vance Randolph.

Curiously, the Harington novels that depict the most problematic kinds of sexuality are the ones least attached to Stay More. The heroine of Ekaterina, who loves prepubescent boys, comes from a region of the Caucasus Mountains near Georgia, and her story begins in Pittsburgh. She visits Stay More eventually, but she isn’t a Stay Moron. The massive With (2004), in which a pedophile abducts a young girl, takes place around Stay More, but the principal characters aren’t part of the history outlined in TAO TAO. Some Other Place, the Right Place is about the search for Stay More, but Montross is the archetypal foreigner, down from the backwoods of Connecticut.

The destructive sexuality of the outside world doesn’t exist in Stay More because Arcadia is a deliberate escape from civilization; the usual rules barely apply here. Pan doesn’t really care if you crush on your sister, converse with your dead grandfather, or lock up the government man in the outhouse when he tries to arrest you for brewing corn whiskey (as in Lighting Bug’s hilarious, lightly sketched subplot). For all of his postmodern tendencies, Harington has one strong modernist trait: he loves the primitive for its liberating powers. This is why all of his books are so sex-crazed: prudery has no home out in the woods.

In fact, many of the Stay More novels derive their tension from those who would impose their power on the relatively free world of Stay More, unscrupulous preachers who cry “sin!” while themselves committing thievery and adultery. In the mad 1989 allegory The Cockroaches of Stay More, religion is nothing more than a failed attempt to make order out of the complicated universe. The roaches live in one of the last remaining inhabited buildings of Stay More, known as Holy House because the alcoholic literary critic who lives there likes to shoot holes in the walls. Their preacher, Brother Tichborne—a frockroach, in that he lives in the filthy pocket of a frock coat—spends much energy trying to convince his fellow bugs that Man is God, that his whiskey-soaked acts of destruction are simply divine will, and that if they’re very devout, they’ll go to heaven when stomped on. I can testify from experience that The Cockroaches of Stay More is a hard book to read while eating breakfast in an old tenement with limited pest control, but it’s a perfect example of Harington on Christianity: in short, it has no place in the natural Ozark world.

There is room in this world, however, for literature. Cockroaches’ hero is Sam Ingledew, a strapping young roach who is smart, a little aloof, and almost totally deaf. By far the weirdest of Harington’s fictional doubles, he lives in a clock that shouts food names on the hour (“TRIFLE!” “BUN!” “FONDUE!”) and has decided to go by the name Gregor Samsa Ingledew, “the full meaning of which was known, or appreciated, only by himself.” The Kafka reference is almost obligatory for a religious allegory about roaches—but the religious allegory about roaches isn’t exactly obligatory for a Southern writer. Or for any kind of writer, for that matter. The Cockroaches of Stay More is proof that Harington will never run out of stories. Stay More might be small, isolated, and doomed to ruin, but it’s still teeming with wild life.

“I know that the gods of the mountains are not the gods of the towns,” says the narrator of Harington’s 1996 novel Butterfly Weed. For his ninth book, Harington chose as a speaker Vance Randolph, the very same joke-lepidopterist who netted the Jenkin-Horn story in 1953. Randolph makes a perfect narrator for Harington. Like Harington, he devoted his life to explaining the old Ozark ways to an outside audience. In Butterfly Weed, he tells the story of Stay More’s Doc Swain, who treated him for typhoid (according to the novel) in the mid-1930s. When the good doctor asks Randolph about his work, he sheepishly admits that one of his recent books is called The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society, feeling as if he were “trying to tell a bird that I’d written a field guide in which the bird was included.” Doc Swain thinks about this for a moment before agreeing that he and his neighbors are living the way their grandparents did. Then he offers Randolph a drink of Stay More’s famous homemade corn whiskey, Chism’s Dew—the joke being that it’s a damn sight better than any alcohol produced in the modern, nonprimitive world.

As a novelist rather than a folklorist, Harington has both invented Chism’s Dew and preserved it. His Stay More books anthologize his own creation, simultaneously inventing and recording the history of a fictional town. Stay More is an arcadian memory-world, inaccessible but eternal: hard to find, but harder to leave.

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