Friday, November 4, 2011

Servante of Darkness #4: Grotesques and the Southern Gothic

Trailer Park Noir (2011) by Ray Garton

Reviewed by Anthony Servante

Welcome to the Darkness, dear readers. This month we take a look at the underside of the American Dream, that vile village known as the trailer park. We shall investigate the people who populate such a place, through the eyes of Ray Garton, grotesque characters like those one would find in the Southern Gothic novel, in works by the likes of Robert E. Howard (Pigeons from Hell), William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams.

“Southern Gothic” novels would often have macabre characters in exaggerated locales. According to Philip Thomson in his work, The Grotesque (1972) Methuen & Co. Ltd., the characters are usually considered ‘grotesque’ if they induce both empathy and antipathy. Ray Garton’s Trailer Park Noir (2011) meets this definition with its slew of odd characters and urban blithe setting. But, instead of a post-Civil War South, Garton places his characters in a trailer park, the underbelly of middle-class America. In essence, we could call the noir novel, a Southern California Gothic.

The story takes place in a Riverside, California trailer park where sleazy characters reside and the comings and goings of the police would not be unexpected. The characters are distorted tragic figures, traversing the normal and abnormal qualities of disharmony with “unresolved conflicts of work and response” (Thomson). In other words, we like the characters at the same time that we dislike them. There are no heroes here to cheer. We can only hope for some redemption to overcome the repulsion. We cringe as the trailer park characters go from bad to worse. So, let’s delve into our cast of characters from the Riverside Mobile Home Park and see how they work and respond to their dark situations.

Typical of the “Southern Gothic” is the story’s reliance on a character with a childlike mind but corrupted body or soul. William Faulkner's innocent is the mentally handicapped Benji from The Sound and the Fury; Carson McCullers’ the deaf-mute John Singer in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Ray Garton has Kendra Dunfy, a twelve year old girl stuck in the body of a seductive young woman, sixteen going on twenty-six. Kendra longs to do “naughty” things, as she is only beginning to learn what “naughty” even means. Boys her own age are confused by her but men, both married and single, are drawn to her with lewd temptations, both physical and mental, in fantasy and plan.

Marcus Reznick sees in the beautiful nubile girl the young wife he had his first sexual relations with since high school. Yet he grapples with his desires for this “retarded” teenager with a child’s mind, fighting off his temptations and erections by thinking of returning to his alcoholic ways. The loss of his wife to suicide, graphically described in the book, haunts the Private Investigator Reznick and had driven him to drink. Kendra reawakens the desires in him that he came to the trailer park to escape. Tension of tragic proportions ensues.

Steve Regent sees in Kendra’s photogenic sexuality his ticket to a bonanza on his pornography website, although he does not realize or possibly does not care that Kendra is underage, but he sizes her up as an easy mark because of her handicap. He allows his greed and lust to dictate his actions. He tricks the young girl into disrobing so that he can photograph her and plans to seduce her on video to satisfy his own desires and quench the lusts of his many website clients. Unlike Reznick, Regent does not seek to control or hide his ‘erections’ and a series of bad events is set in motion.

Kendra’s mother, Anna, becomes a stripper by night and a temp by day, opposing figures that create conflict with the raising of a daughter who also embodies conflicting personalities: child versus young woman. Anna vies to allow her daughter some independence accorded a sixteen year old girl, while worrying that the unsupervised girl may be in danger because her attractive features will draw in bad men. She even worries about her neighbor Reznick, whom she likes and trusts, but whom she promises to ‘kill’ should he deflower her daughter. No jury with a mother on it would convict her of murder, she reasons to herself. Her maternal instinct is murder.

Rose, Anna’s sister, often baby-sits Kendra and lectures her sister about her daughter’s sexuality and the risks she is taking by being a stripper. Rose tells Anna that Kendra would make a good stripper, that she has what men want to see. The sisters argue over the needless comparison of Anna’s voluptuous body to that of Kendra’s and Anna recalls how her parents never discussed such vulgar topics in their home. But Rose reminds her that in her own home, Rose speaks freely of sex to her own son and daughter, without realizing that she is merely leaving the impression that she may be a bit too liberal with her talk of sex with her pre-teen kids. Only confusion can ensue with the mixed messages her kids are receiving, much as Kendra’s own confusion drives the plot.

More grotesque characters abound in this noir novel.

Arnold Garvis, the corpse in Sherry and Andy’s trailer, has a “mom [who] is hooked on pills and his dad drinks and sees hookers. But they go to church every Sunday, so I guess it all ... evens out.” Muriel Snodgrass, park manager, “was a fat pasty-white woman with a big belly, but spindly legs that came like sticks out of the baggy blue shorts she wore. Her black-dyed hair – and a bad job, too – was a mess.” Linda Straight, Reznick’s client, learns her husband’s cheating on her with several women—an example of grotesque exaggeration and excess. Also, Reznick’s parents are killed by a robber soon after he loses his wife—more excess. Senator Wilson Garvis is “big on morals and family values and prayer in schools”, while hiring hookers in his spare time. Monica, the Goth girl, and seven year old Valerie—both already wise to the ways of sex—try to initiate Kendra into being naughty. And on and on the list goes. We have drug addicts, wife beaters, perverts, murderers, rapists, abortionists, many of whom are good church-goers or come from good families (perhaps with the exception of Steve Regent, an irredeemable scoundrel similar to the carpetbaggers infesting the fallen South).

Ray Garton has gathered a cast of characters that could easily fit into a Southern Gothic: grotesque figures, inside and out, morally and physically. Trailer Park Noir (I have found myself mistakenly typing Trailer ‘Trash’ Noir a number of times—just to show you how seedy these characters are) echoes the “trashy” characters one would expect to find in gothic novels of the old South, where the Civil War turned the grand society of civility and manners into a wasteland of bitter losers trying in vain to hold onto their former dignity. Where once there was great light, there now fell a vast darkness. Garton tells us, “When I wrote Trailer Park Noir, I wanted to capture the feeling of Shady Hill Trailer Park that I experienced as a little boy and then reveal the dark underside. But somehow, that eluded me. It was overshadowed by what the park had become.” And what it had become was a Southern California Gothic.

(Visit Ray Garton at his official website)

--Anthony Servante