Good ol’ boys grin and cry in “Last Bigfoot”
by Rob Neufeld
Both Wally Avett—whose new novel, “Last Bigfoot in Dixie” (Bell Bridge Book), begins with this line—and I are in the grabbing business ourselves, as are so many others today vying for your attention.
In fact, there’s a great new book out about this phenomenon—Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get inside Our Heads” (Knopf).
Long before clickbait, Wu reveals, there had been Benjamin Day, who, in 1833, had printed his new newspaper, the “New York Sun” at a loss, but had more than compensated with income from ads after he’d captured people’s attention with lurid stories.
His first two features were about a melancholy suicide; and a man who assaulted a woman and then chose marrying her over the judge’s other option, prison.
I remember reading a book titled “Subliminal Seduction” (by Wilson Bryan Key, 1974) that showed how one TV advertiser inserted, into footage of water going down a drain, the image of a skull and crossbones and then the letters, S, E and X.
Poor us. We can’t not look at wrecks and sex. And it takes a dull person to resist a flirtation with oblivion—unlike Tippi Hedren going into that attic in “The Birds”; and Bathsheba Everdene getting turned on by a soldier’s Trump-like grope in the new movie version of “Far from the Madding Crowd.” I hate legitimized rape fantasies.
But that’s not Avett’s thing; he sticks to pure horror, without any prurience.
“Tracks were all we had the next morning to read the scene where she was killed and eaten,” the novel reports.
Proctor and gambols
Avett uses the horror grab to pull us into a social comedy, featuring good ol’ boy fellowship; independent woman upwomanship; folklore; criminal investigation; and mass market romance.
The pacing is more leisurely than you might expect, as his characters engage in a woodsman’s version of Mayberry subplots among plot shocks that rock the Great Smokies town of Proctor.
The narrator, Wade, a newspaper columnist and sheriff’s deputy, gets hijacked into the story with a jocular shock.
“I was walking down the sidewalk on Tennessee Street, minding my own business, intent on finding my lunch at my favorite greasy spoon” he recounts, “when the siren on a sheriff’s car split my hearing from only six feet away.”
“Get y’r ass in here and l’es ride,” Chief Deputy Earl Millsaps snarls at him. That’s man-code for a bear hug.
Except that bears are not too cool a subject at the moment because the suspect in the recent killing of a nine-year-old girl is a 600-pound bear that an old Indian had trained for wrestling shows years before.
The Indian had also taught the bear to track and follow his grandson by his smell, like a bloodhound. So, when Wade gets knocked down by the bear in his failed attempt to shoot the creature, the brushing places a mark.
Ronnie, a Cherokee hunter, explains to Wade how the bear “may remember your (scent)...it can identify you, Wade. You are at the top of the bear’s enemy list.”
“You remember the movie ‘Jaws’” Sheriff Harley Elliott says at another point.
A trove of trouble
There are as many suspense story crises in “Last Bigfoot” as there are community crises in a Jan Karon novel. Avett’s big bear is just the bass note, taking the place of a voracious Mitford developer, for instance.
Wade’s new girlfriend has come to town looking for her parents, for she’d been a victim of an infant-selling scheme years ago. A giant full-blood Cherokee man seeks Wade’s help in writing a book about the Trail of Tears.
A doll in a cave connects to the long-ago walling-in of a two-year-old girl by a crazy guardian grandma. (For a classic treatment of this tale, see Maurice Stanley’s 1991 narrative, “The Legend of Nance Dude.”)
Gold coins trace back to Hernando de Soto. The sheriff is torn up by murders of a non-carnivorous type, perpetrated by a psychopath named Junior.
In many ways, Avett’s playfulness is like good pickin’ and grinnin’, particularly when he writes like a columnist. At other times, especially with plot developments, it’s melodramatic convention.
You wouldn’t expect Buck Owens to stop playing his guitar, turn to Roy Clark and say, “Hey, Roy, did you hear about the girl who got her legs eaten off?” And Roy wouldn’t respond, “That’s nothing compared to the ex-con who tortured his girlfriend.”
If you want to see tale-telling and plot-driving done seamlessly, look at Fred Chappell’s “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” in which ol’ boy hunters go after a “devil-possum,” invented by the wise-acre hero to top his tiresome tormenters.
I hope I don’t sound prudish. But we’re so overwhelmed by vice and violence in TV dramas, best-selling novels, and network news, I’d like to see psychopathy and horror not used so cavalierly. Though there’s a relatively new podcast show, “Last Podcast on the Left,” that’s a humorous, anguished riff on the obsessive fascination with sociopaths; and it seems both fresh and horrible.
With Avett, we get innocent fun with some serviceable exploitation.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.” He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net and 505-1973. Follow him @WNC_chronicler.