Whisky & Culture

Southern Farce

The tale of X loves Y who loves Z who loves A
By Jefferson Chase
Like whisky comedy comes in a variety of local styles and flavours, and there's something wonderfully and ridiculously genteel about Southern American farce, especially when it's set in New Orleans. Walker Percy and John Kennedy O'Toole are two practitioners of the genre that spring to mind, and I was fortunate enough recently to discover a third.

With their slightly formal quality, the opening sentences of James Wilcox's 1993 novel Modern Baptists sets a decidedly Southern oddball tone:

When F. X. got out of jail, he went to live with his half-brother, Mr. Pickens, who lived right next door to Dr. Henry's, the all-night store that sold beer and ice cubes and gas. The reason Mr. Pickens let him live there…was because Mr. Pickens had a mole on his back that looked sort of like a fat New Jersey.

F. X. was in prison for selling cocaine. So he's a perfect foil for "Mr." Bobby Pickens - a cowardly 41 year old hypochondriac who works as a floor manager in a local department store.

To make matters worse, handsome F. X. takes up with Toinette, a teenage employee of Pickens. Bobby has a massive, unrequited crush on her - despite the fact that she is what is often called "white trash" in the South:

Astir with a muddled half-formed love for Toinette that was growing stronger by the minute, Mr. Pickens resolved to transfer this feeling to real wife material, a mature woman who was sober, industrious, intelligent, and if not beautiful, at least well groomed. That was the reason he began going out in the evenings to places he didn't want to go…

Those places include the opera, described by Wilcox through Pickens' eyes and ears as "pure torture."

The plot follows a "X loves Y who loves Z who loves A" schema as old as Shakespeare, although comedy is rarely about plot per se, but rather about human foibles and blind spots.

Pickens' blind spot is Toinette's overweight best friend Burma, who's completely, if not hopelessly enamored of him.

She seeks him out, ostensibly to discuss Toinette's relationship with F. X. But the conversation soon turns to the difference between traditional and modern Baptists:

"Modern Baptists can drink."

"Well, I guess I'm a modern Baptist, then." She was still looking at the sky. "Want to get drunk?"

She reached in her handbag, which was as big as an overnight bag, and pulled out a quart bottle of Old Crow. But the liquid inside was dark, not all like bourbon.

It's filled with Toinette's favourite drink, Bourbon with TAB cola, a gruesome sounding concoction that gets passed round liberally during the 250 light-hearted pages of this book.

Wilcox may be published by Penguin Classics, but he's never gotten the widespread recognition he deserves. That's a shame because there are few writers who do mannerly, daffy Southern absurdity any better.

Modern Baptists is as relaxed and enjoyable as a stroll through New Orleans on a warm spring evening.