He's left his heart in the land of fiasco
by Rob Neufeld
You can take a trip to Walmart to see a cross-section of benighted poor people, as one character does in Matt Cashion’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize-winning book, “Last Words of the Holy Ghost” (U. of North Texas Pr.); or you can read the 12 stories in his collection.
One thing that the current multitude of writing programs in universities, community colleges, and writing groups has done is give voice to the previously under-voiced under-privileged, whom Cashion represents.
In Cashion’s view of the land of the damned in lowland Georgia and mountain North Carolina, you’ve got dads who drink, get divorced, pick up women, and get remarried. You’ve got women who get trapped, seek a way out, and care for their sons without enforcing rules. Maybe they’re fatalistic or don’t have the energy.
Sometimes there’s a stepfather who steps up to the plate with their step-sons.
Cashion’s stories are bleak, but not weak. They’re heart-rending, and, at the same time, hardened by humor that is brilliantly and painfully hilarious.
The least of these
The story about the Walmart trip—“A Serious Question”—has no boy or drunk dad in it. The point of view belongs to Charlotte, a 68-year-old woman who has retreated to coastal Georgia from a bureaucratic job in a northern city to be become a reclusive misanthrope.
Her octogenarian second cousin, Brother Michael, calls her up because his Catholic community wants to send him to a retirement home in Indiana, and he has a favor to ask. Ostensibly, it’s to drive him to Walmart to buy a Dust Devil to clean his room; covertly, it’s to let him move in with her, taking his deaf, manic, flea-bitten dog with him.
This sets up the farce at Walmart, where Michael jumps into a motorized cart and shouts “Whiplash!” when a woman in a wheelchair cuts him off.
Charlotte experiences explosive bowel problems; and feels sick witnessing the walking wounded: a woman with a bandaged face and a cart full of bleach; a young mother oblivious to her toddler sitting on the floor putting something into his mouth; gangstas with low-slung pants to whom Michael says, “Pardon me, girls.”
“Parked in the center of (one) aisle,” Charlotte notices, “a teenage girl sat inside a cart—head titled on a neck too weak for it, crossed eyes...She looked toward Charlotte and tried to smile, or so it seemed, which forced a bit of spittle to the corner of her mouth. On her lap, someone had placed a 24-roll case of toilet paper.”
“Dear God,” Charlotte says, “It’s a literal basket case.”
The brutality of the anguish is relieved at story’s end by Charlotte’s affection for the mangy mutt she told Michael she’d return to the shelter.
When Jesus says, love the least of these your brothers, you’ve got to seriously consider how far “least” goes.
Baptism by dire
For eight-year-old Hank, the immersion into least-of-these territory comes when, in the story, “Penmanship,” he gets permission to visit Jimmy, his biological dad in North Carolina, in order to get away from his vise-gripping teacher, Sister Fermina.
In Jimmy’s custom van, Hank gets to sample Playboy magazines; learn CB lingo when his dad flirts with a female trucker; and act as his father’s pimp by going up to a woman in a diner and asking, “Would you like to meet my daddy?”
When Hank, left alone in a motel room at night, ventures out and interrupts his dad in flagrante with the diner hook-up in the van, Hank gets to witness the sad aftermath.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy says. “That won’t ever happen again.”
“Hank,” Cashion writes, “thought about the sad spot his father had been staring at and tried to find it, even though the door was closed,”
Hank calls his mom to return home and detects, in her speech, that his stepfather, Henry, who’d nurtured Hank’s baseball pitching and cabinet making skills, has either left or been sent on his way.
A 14-year-old boy named Harold is featured in book’s title story. He has fallen in love with 15-year-old Rose Carver in a piedmont town where his stepfather has a farm. Rose promises Harold intimacies if he’d only go to her father’s church and be baptized. He does and then suffers multiple heartbreaks.
His return home presents him with a situation like Hank’s. His generous, rural stepfather has left, and his mother suggests a fishing trip with her upscale new boyfriend.
“His heart was a trout lying in the woods,” Cashion writes. “A sun-baked trout whose mouth kept moving, spilling final words from the Holy Ghost...He wanted to wander through the woods until he found it. He would put it in his pocket, or wear it around his neck, and present it to the first girl who smiled at him.”
To see a trailer for the award-winning film based on this story, visit mattcashion.com/trailer/.
Cashion is virtuosic in his story-making, not only ranging from rough barbs to romantic poetry, but also experimenting with narrative forms.
In “Clarissa Drives John-Boy to the Jacksonville Airport,” Clarissa, an earthy woman, takes an aspiring writer to the airport to go to college. The whole story is her narration about her life, interrupted by her noting her passenger’s sickly look and suggesting he crack a window.
The young man hesitates getting out, and she says, “You mean to tell me after all I done told you about everything I done been through, you too scared to get out of the car?”
When you look at how various great writers are bringing their home people to literary consciousness—Ron Rash’s noble survivors and victims; Lee Smith’s chaos-managing laughing folk; Dorothy Allison’s assertive fighters; George Singleton’s cracked villagers—you can further appreciate Cashion’s mouthing wounded.