132 pgs. | $12.95
Brian Allen Carr’s novella Edie and the Low-Hung Hands (ELHH) is a post-apocalyptic Western with tons of sword-fighting. The story opens in Victory, where our hero Marlet guards the windmills, watching the fence and protecting the town’s lone source of power. He passes time pining for his sister-in-law Edie, and when Marlet kills his brother in hopes of taking Edie for himself, she chooses another man. Spurned by the woman he loves and wanted for the murder of his brother, Marlet strikes out in search of purpose.
Marlet’s quest takes him to New New Salem where he is attacked by an endless phalanx of blank-skinned men and children—a sort of omni-racial other—all of whom are named Esau Cotton. Marlet is saved by his sometimes-estranged-sometimes-patricidal son, Pickering, who has followed his father out of Victory in hopes of finding his mother. From there, Marlet is drugged and forcibly conscripted as an oarsman aboard a shrimp boat. After escaping bondage, Marlet befriends Pahnder, a buffalo-riding 120-year-old man who defies the effects of age by way of the occasional somnambulistic killing spree. The two take pleasure with some whores, kill them, and are back on the road when eventually they get hungry. All the time Marlet pines for Edie.
There’s a lot going on in the first half of this novella, and spun out in Brian Allen Carr’s gut-string prose, it reads quick. The violence shimmers, and the requisite descriptions of oddball characters and post-apocalyptic settings are delivered with precision and nerve: “We weren’t the only travelers on the road. There were a few cars and vans that had been chopped down so their chassis were bare, and these vehicles were drawn by horses that looked thirsty and stupid.”
Though well-stocked with Marlet’s contemplations, ELHH achieves its rhythm from the mumble style narration. Here Marlet readies Pahnder’s buffalo for the spits:
I set into breaking down the beast. I didn’t gut him. I went in from his back and took the straps that ran along his spine. The two big strips were more than Pahnder and I could eat alone. Blood ran down my hands and arms as I slit the hide from the flesh and pulled the bundles of muscles from the bone. There was a smell like metal, and Pahnder sighed each time my blade loosened flesh.
Marlet continues in exacting detail, offering each step in the buffalo’s metamorphosis from traveling companion to mouthwatering supper, and yet as the sentences rush by, we feel Pahnder looking on, first in sadness, then in anger. As Marlet slices and seasons, roasts and chews, the connection we forge with Pahnder over the loss of his buffalo friend is genuine and unexpected.
Carr’s effect is that of a story running downhill, including everything and lingering only to make important navigational adjustments. This not only makes for a fun read, it also develops trust. The illusion is that of being given the whole truth, no highlight-reel storytelling, and so when the sentence structures begin to knot up, when the pace slows and commas appear, Marlet’s ruminations—usually pertaining to his love for Edie or his regret for killing so many—take on something more than momentary pathos; they assume a terse solemnity, providing reasons, sometimes literal, to take a breath.
One might suspect the nonstop violence and verbal wending to grow tiresome over the course of a hundred-plus-pages, and it would, if not for Pahnder and Pickering. Pahnder provides the straight-talking normalcy we recognize, and through him Marlet’s solipsistic motives are clarified by contrast. Though Pahnder is prone to the occasional nighttime rampage, he is the only character with a developed conscience, and as such, he is integral to maintaining a sense of moral direction in Marlet’s distorted world. Between the old man’s guilt (Pahnder deeply regrets the aforementioned rampages) and the young man’s ambivalence, there’s ample respite from the sweep of Marlet’s life-negating rationale.
Pickering conveys youthful indecision to the point of parody: When his mother is captured, Pickering loses an arm in the fight and afterward carries the skeletal appendage in his satchel. Unable to leave it behind, he takes it out for scratching when he experiences a phantom itch, but his ultimate choice is serious and universal: Will he take after his father or strive for something better?
The climactic moment of the journey comes when Pickering, Pahnder, and Marlet ride to the rescue of Pickering’s mother, who is being held by the blank-skinned Esaus. It’s a suicide mission, and Pickering is mortally wounded during the attack. When faced with comforting his dying son, Marlet first lies “the way dying people need to hear… ‘Tomorrow we’ll go fishing,’” only to feel the guilt of his words turn him toward truth. He says, “It can be what you want. Spin it into dream. Let the death take you to a better place.”
Marlet buries Pickering and parts with Pahnder when the road takes them in different directions. He rides on, sustaining the fantasy of Edie, and thereby dramatizing this dream-making to its logical end. We heed our ideologies and phantom pangs while allowing intransigent practicalities, like looming death and unrequited love, to go ignored. Instead of charging our windmills in quixotic fury, we build fences around them. We hire men who would kill their brothers to patrol these borders and see to it that no one dares disturb the myths that hold us together.
Dan Townsend’s stories appear in Barrelhouse, Drunken Boat, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. He grew up in Texas and lives in Alabama.