James Wilcox, ‘Modern Baptists’: serious humour with deadpan deadliness

James Wilcox, Modern Baptists. First published USA 1983. Penguin Classics 2005.

Spoiler alert: details of plot and ending are revealed here.

I bought this book in a local second-hand bookshop because I liked the cover. Penguin really do produce some handsome designs. I’d never, I’m ashamed to say, heard of James Wilcox. I’ve come to rate him as Louisiana’s answer to Carson McCullers.

Penguin Classics cover of 'Modern Baptists'Born in Hammond, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1949, Wilcox was raised a Catholic. This might partly explain the underlying seriousness of this comic novel, with its preoccupation with morality, redemption and the struggle to exist in a hostile universe. More on that in a moment.

It’s set in the sleepy fictional town of Tula Springs, also near Baton Rouge, but transposed to a part of the state that had ‘pledged allegiance to no one, not to the US or Spain or even England’ (it had not formed part of the Louisiana Purchase; I love that use of ‘even’!) – a fact that worries Mr Pickens, the central character, for it ‘smacked of Communism’ and seemed to him unpatriotic. He attends a theologically unsound men’s Baptist bible study group.

Deeply conservative and timid by nature, the Pooterish Mr Pickens at age 41 is bullied or deprecated by most who know him, yet longs for the social and sexual recognition and success he’s doomed never to achieve; he’d dropped out of college because ‘he hated living in a dorm. Everyone was always snapping rattails at you in the shower’. He is usually called Mr Pickens, or ‘Bobby’ by his intimates; towards the end of the novel he feebly tries to insist on the more formal ‘Carl ‘ or ‘Carl Robert’ , but so lacks assertiveness and authority that he’s blithely ignored. He believes as the novel opens that he’s dying of cancer.  As a friendless bachelor he’s desperate to share his despair with someone, so visits his handsome half-brother F.X. in the state penitentiary, where he’s finishing a sentence for dealing cocaine, and invites him to stay with him on his release until he gets ‘back on his feet’. Big mistake.

The feckless F.X. (his Italian mother, Mr Pickens’s step-mother, was an Italian Catholic, an admirer of saints like Francis Xavier) quickly becomes a cuckoo in this fetid, cockroach-infested bachelor nest (with its awful plastic-upholstered love-seat), sponging off his older brother, and slipping back into their habitual unevenly balanced relationship: Mr Pickens nursing a stifling sense of inferiority, blundering from one social faux pas to another as he tries to better himself, and fussing about the rash on his arm and his thinning hair. FX casually reminds him how he’d channelled his geeky brother’s spineless nature when doing an ‘improv’ for an acting coach:

“I began spouting all this stuff about how everyone in high school hated me and how I –“

“Everyone didn’t hate me.”

“Well, Bobby, you did hang out with losers, you got to admit. Anyway, then I go on about how my brother was this big football star, and really good-looking and all, and I start saying how much I wished I could be him because—“

“I never wished I could be you.”

“—because he got all the girls…”

There’s a high proportion of such dialogue in the novel, which keeps the pace rattling along amiably, and most of it is engagingly wry and comically character-revealing, as in this extract. As we saw in the dialogue of Sybille Bedford in my previous post, Wilcox is adept at conveying the non-sequiturs  and misunderstandings in people’s speech; characters construct meaning elliptically, tangentially and often in spite of the surface meaning of what they say.

The narrative characteristically employs anti-climax or narrative deflation, as in the following example where it pricks the bubble of Pickens’s earnest, comically self-deluding pomposity (he’s usually wrong about most of his epiphanies); he’s convinced himself that his deliverance from cancer is a sign that he has a vocation (which unsurprisingly turns out to be short-lived) as a preacher of a new, more logical and tolerant kind of modern Baptism than the hellfire, ranting kind then prevalent (maybe it still is) in the South; he’s talking to Burma the ‘girl who sold novelty items at the Sonny Boy Bargain Store’ where Mr Pickens was briefly the ineffective assistant manager:

“See, Burma, to be in business, any sort of business, you can’t have too many scruples, too many ethics. That’s always been my problem. I’ve never got ahead in the business world for one reason: I’m too moral.” He paused to let this sink in.  “There’s some people like me who God’s weighted down with the heavy burden of morality, a real penetrating sense of right and wrong. We just can’t escape it no matter how hard we try. Now think a minute, Burma, what sort of career would that fit into?”

“I don’t know. A lawyer?”

That delicious misuse of ‘ethics’ as a count noun is enhanced by Pickens’s mimicry of the rhetoric and rhythms of the Baptist preacher and his overuse of Burma’s name and of imperatives to emphasise what he misguidedly sees as his divinely-inspired position of superiority. Burma’s punchline is delivered with deadpan deadliness.

The prose style throughout skilfully incorporates high and low registers and Southern demotic; a man called Emmet is described as ‘bony as a gar’. The flora and fauna are alien to me, and are surely given comic prominence (much is made of ‘yaupon’ tea, alligator grass and kudzu; there’s ‘Chinese tallow’ and ‘possum haw’; Mr Pickens is proud of his newly-planted ‘St Augustine’ – I’d love to know if these are all authentic Southern usages; those I’ve checked so far seem to be).

Although Wilcox often teeters on the brink of whimsy (there’s a cat called Motor and some pecan-crazed squirrels; the Keely parents are annoyingly bizarre), and sometimes overdoes the quirky eccentricity in his characterisation and set pieces (but he scores a hit when Donna Lee slips devastatingly effective Mickey Finns to the hypocritical men’s bible study group), there’s an underlying charm, and an obvious affection for his characters and the dead-end town they grudgingly inhabit that pulls the reader through the stickier patches. The fact that they know it’s boring (trains stopped running in 1908; it’s set between a creosote plant and an illegal toxic waste dump that plays a big part in the rather silly plot) is endearingly familiar: one character says of it:

“If I could go, I’d go…What is there to do here? Nothin’ ‘cept work your butt off, then go home and get soggy. My mama says I drink too much. Emmet says that too. ..Bobby, do you think you drink too much?”

“I guess so.”

“And we’re Baptists.”

“Modern Baptists can drink.”

This is Burma again. Her drawling idiom is differentiated from the Standard English Mr Pickens prides himself on: the class divide is very apparent in the novel. He finds Burma unattractive, he tells himself, not because of her looks, but because she lacks ‘class’ –  he winces at her bad grammar, excessive use of make-up and her garish clothes, yet she has a good heart, he dimly realises once in a drunken moment. He attends cultural events like opera in (vain) hopes of finding a more suitably ‘well-groomed’ spouse. The town is literally divided by the railroad tracks, and the social divisions are astutely anatomised by Wilcox. That he has the university-educated Donna Lee pair up with ex-con F.X. indicates part of his purpose: to show that accommodations can be reached if people will only accept others for what they are. Donna Lee patronises Burma, but it’s Burma who redeems the lawyer. Maybe F.X. is the ideal lover for her.

The plot, then, is like a Southern, boozy Shakespeare comedy with a dash of Beckett. There are three central couples: Burma, who’s in her late thirties, and her reptilian fiancé Emmet, but Burma harbours an unrequited love for Mr Pickens; he in turn loves the snobbish, lanky redheaded eighteen-year-old Toinette (short for Marie Antoinette Quaid), the gum-chewing candy clerk at their store. But Toinette falls for F.X., who mistakenly sees her as his meal ticket out of this small town purgatory. Halfway through the novel we meet Donna Lee Keely, a bossy lawyer, another misfit and lost loner, who tries to take Burma under her wing, and also falls unaccountably in love with F.X.; this time he reciprocates.

The plot is full of such complications, and is perhaps the least satisfying part of the novel. On first reading I found it a little irksome and the kooky humour occasionally misfired. Sometimes it’s hilarious, as when the newly-devout Mr Pickens urges Emmet to kneel in prayer with him, and they are mistakenly perceived by Toinette’s mother to be engaging in an act of what she calls ‘perversion’. The denouement set in a building on the town’s illicit waste dump on Christmas Eve is less successful; the strings are pulled a little too obviously.

Over time, however, I’ve come to admire the craft of the prose and the seriousness that is ingrained in the flimsy, overwrought farce of a story.  For example there’s an early scene where Mr Pickens tries to engage F.X. in a serious metaphysical conversation, only to find that his brother has fallen asleep on him.

There are curiously lyrical touches:

The moon, rising over the river birch, seemed to tug at Mr Pickens’s heart.

Yet even this poetic image is counterpointed by its appearing as he tries to stop Burma and Toinette from squabbling like kids.

More interesting is this, near the novel’s end, when Mr Pickens has just recklessly handed over an expensive watch to a stranger, having intended giving it as a gift (to replace a cheap one of Toinette’s that he’d stolen) in a desperate attempt to win her favours, then realising his love is hopeless:

And time, which Mr Pickens could neither steal nor buy, that infernal, unrelenting dance of the hours, so graceless, so mechanical, so cuckoo – he wanted no part of it anymore. He was through, finished.

Wilcox’s editor persuaded him to change the novel’s ending; he’d originally had Mr Pickens die in a train crash. That he has him instead fail in his attempt to commit suicide by crashing his car, because it runs out of fuel, illustrates how the farce is deployed as a means of dramatizing how his characters confront the indifference of the universe to the hopes and dreams of the human insects, the gods’ playthings who crawl across earth’s surface.

This is shown slightly differently here, when Emmet’s jealousy towards Mr Pickens boils over:

Pickens and Emmet rolled over and over, struggling silently, fiercely, like Jacob and the man, the clouds so high above them melted, and the stars shone forth in hundred-carat glory.

Wilcox seems to invite us to find these men pathetic, ridiculous, but there’s also a grandeur  (or is it irony?) in their futile struggle to stem the superior forces that engulf them.

One of the stand-out scenes that shows Wilcox’s achievement is too long to quote fully here: it relates the visit in Ch. 11 by Mr Pickens to the ammonia-scented, inappropriately named Azalea Manor, the nursing home where his senile mother is an inmate. The receptionist is hostile, the staff off-hand. His mother shares a room with Miss Jesse, another confused old lady. The uncomfortably broad  humour contrasts interestingly, however, with a subtly understated sense of real pathos, sadness and loss.  To attempt such a stark contrast is risky, but Wilcox manages it here with aplomb.

When his mother in this scene mistakes him for another man, Mr Pickens plays along, for he’s trying to pump her for information about the deeds of his house, which F.X. is threatening to take from him. Just as we think he’s being callous and selfish as he becomes exasperated with the dislocated weirdness of these two tragically demented figures, his mother, now mistaking him for some Lieutenant, tells him to leave:

“Yes, good-bye. And thank you for the ashes. That’s all I’ve got left, ashes, ashes and ruin and…”

“Go, Mr Pickens,” Miss Jesse said over his mother’s soliloquy. “Go quick, or she’ll never stop.”

As Mr Pickens closed the door behind him he heard his mother say, “Please, Mama, help me,” and Miss Jesse reply softly, “Yes, child, I’m here.”

The problem with the comic novels by the likes of Jerome and the Grossmiths, who also deal with the ineffectual struggles of little men who aspire to impossibly lofty states, is that they lack range and variety: they’re consistently zany in their eccentricity, and we laugh at the characters’ dysfunctional bumbling. What redeems Modern Baptists is this contrast of dark and light. He has the capacity and ambition to have his characters glimpse the ashes and the ruin.  Like Dickens and Beckett, Wilcox sees the hollow skull beneath the grinning skin.

At the novel’s end the Pickens brothers’ uneasy combination of exasperation, selfish manipulation and vestigial family affection just about reaches an accommodation, and we see a glimpse of potential reconciliation, even love, between the eternally inferior and put-upon Mr Pickens and his scheming lothario of a brother. The novel is really about the way flawed odd couples can somehow survive the vicissitudes that a hostile world forces them to experience; there is, inexplicably, hope for us all.  There are redeeming features in the most unlikely of places, Wilcox suggests. This should be too sugary to stomach, but there’s enough salt in the mix for him to get away with it. After all, we accept the implausibilities of As You Like It (there are parallels of plot and theme with Modern Baptists), the sentimentality of Dickens and the bleakness of Beckett because of the enduring, abiding sense of humanity and enduring humour that pervades the text.

Ultimately I found I cared about the nerdy Mr Pickens with his despair, constant failures and his existential crisis, and found my spirits lifted when, at the end, as with Lenny and George, Vladimir and Estragon, Laurel and Hardy, the brothers’ mismatched, conflicting natures cease to matter, they realise they may not be beyond redemption, they’re defeated but they carry on, and they walk off to join a party that may well start a new life for them. Mr Pickens looks up at the ‘shameless stars’ and feels a familiar pang of doubt and fear; F.X. puts his arm around his shoulder and urges him to go on:

And with this yoke, which was easy, he was able to continue on his way.