Book: A Town Called Suckhole
Author: David Barbee
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Dude…
Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2011, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Poor David Barbee. He has the decidedly bad luck to have his book come up for review when I am bizarro-ed out. I don’t think I can be as enthusiastic about this book as I would have had I not been reading so much bizarro that not even the strangest bizarro trope seems the least odd or outre anymore. But even as I am thisclose to eliminating bizarro from my reading diet until I can enjoy it again, I can say that I found Barbee’s novel amusing. I have a fondness for southern-culture-on-the-skids and this book totally delivers on that front.
Excuse me as I try to summarize this book, because it’s pretty heavy, plot-wise: Suckhole is a degenerate Southern town. It’s pretty much The Hills Have Eyes, Two Thousand Maniacs! and The Dukes of Hazzard with a dash of Matlock if Matlock was a genetically mutated abomination. It’s white trash, Mad Max and the Land the Civil War Forgot. So it’s going to be nasty and offensive. Sheriff Jesco Ray Bledskoe becomes the law in Suckhole upon his father’s death/murder. Suckhole’s denizens have been falling victim to a killer and what with the Hell-Yeah Heritage Jamboree coming up, he has to find the killer and quickly. Because he is an inbred simpleton, Bledskoe knows he must get help to solve these murders so he finds a horrifying mutation named Dexter Spikes ,who is the only creature smart enough to be of any use to him. Together, these two characters explore a really foul, post-apocalyptic landscape to find a killer. There are subplots with feral children that seem to hark back to Children of the Corn and there are succubi that are out to thwart Bledskoe and Spikes, but mostly you want to focus on the sheriff and his strange buddy-cop configuration.
Despite not being wholly “into” extra bizarre bizarro at the moment, I was still very pleasantly surprised to see how Barbee’s writing has progressed. His NBAS book, Carnageland, was a good first attempt, but it had its problems. A Town Called Suckhole has its problems too, but far fewer, and the narrative in the book is far cleverer and absorbing. It’s nice to be able to see a writer’s style and skill improve from book to book. Barbee has definitely shown himself interested in the craft of creating a good book, as well as creating a good bizarro book.
I think one of the ways in which Barbee’s skill has improved is in terms of humor and world-building. Here’s a passage near the beginning that I found particularly amusing:
And then the Yankees come with their War of Aggression! Yeah, they come at us with suicide bombers an’ kamikaze fighters an’ big-ass robots what smashed Gettysburg right off the damn map! Them Yankees had devil-worshippin’ abortionists! Scientists with the ancient powers of global warmin’! An’ homosexual ninjas who’d sneak up and turn your first-born sons queer!
Yep, the forces of Northern Aggression, led by Abraham Hussein Lincoln, smeared the South. Thank heavens the South had George W. Foxworthy or they’d be without a hero. But they never stood a chance, really, against the homosexual ninjas. You bring homosexual ninjas into play and you’ve won the war. And this is probably a bit funnier if you’ve spent any time east of Tyler, Texas and know people who, indeed, think global warming is a scam to get our guns and women and such.
The narration continues in this vein for a few pages:
And that’s why, when the town’s biggest two-headed rooster first howls at the harvest moon, we celebrate the Hell-Yeah Heritage Jamboree, to remember our glorious history and oceans of blood been spilt for us! And we tell the great story of Suckhole, proof positive that we Southerners are indeed the best damn race of folks to bless the nuclear soil with the imprint of our asses.
Thank ya’ll for listenin’.
So, I found this funny but it also brings up the problem I will never ever get to stop discussing: editing in bizarro books. Yep, in a novel about the mutant South, we will read the word “y’all” spelled as “ya’ll.” After a while, it will look correct, in that way that misspelled words can seem correct if you read them long enough, but I assure you, it is wrong. There are other editing problems, but overall this book is an improvement over Barbee’s NBAS effort in that regard, as well. But it still sucks because, and goddamn it one day I will just crack and not give a shit and will stop beating this drum, but there is no reason bizarro cannot be a genre wherein craft matters. Barbee’s writing has improved – he gives a shit about the story in its purest form. One can tell, one can read this book and know this man cares deeply about The Word. But without a good editor to catch errors like this and characters who “titter” across floors, and massage sentences like, “A line of stumps poked through the water, leading to an island at the center of the water,” Barbee’s talent will be hamstrung by the genre in which he chooses to write. And that sucks. Suckholes, as it were. Because even as Barbee has improved, this book is still crammed with errors and had I read it after I had made my declaration that any book with 10 serious errors will be rejected, it wouldn’t have made the cut.
But back to the text. I think one of the best things about Barbee’s writing is that he’s sort of like an episode of The Venture Brothers. There are a lot of cultural references in this book, some fringe, some mainstream, but everywhere you read there will be sly little references and fun cultural juxtapositions. Take this passage about the greatly feared Dexter Spikes:
As Dexter crossed town, a few children pointed and wondered about the big lizard-monkey leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Women screamed. Men took shots at him with their rifles, missing terribly. But most of the townsfolk had already heard the news about Dexter Spikes. He was in Suckhole causing mischief and trying to get folks to believe in him. Some swore that he was in town to steal Christmas… somehow. So they ignored him, lest his trickery condemn their souls to damnation.
The stupidity of the townsfolk is an entity unto itself. Here’s what Bledskoe says to trick menacing guards into letting him pass with Dexter:
“He’s Dexter Spikes! The missin’ link of evolution! Mutated from lower life forms into the intelligent creature you see before ya! He’s my deputy, but more to the point, he ain’t even fuckin’ real! Just talkin’ about ‘im is fuckin’ blasphemy.”
And it works because… well, because in a land of complete idiots, the marginally stupid man is king.
Dexter later pegs the horrible town full of stupid people, and so many small towns like it that litter the Old South:
“Truth is they’re just another tribe of savages that couldn’t adapt for what was comin’. An’ the ones that survived pickin’ up the pieces of their old home, where’s that put them? They’re now the bad guys in the pages of history. An’ that don’t truck with how they wanna see themselves. So they went a little crazy, an’ they tried to explain it a different way so’s they come out as the good guys. They explain it a million times, an’ tell a million stories, each one paintin’ ’em as the glorious heroes. They pretend things away, because if they don’t they gotta admit that their home ain’t no paradise and they ain’t the chosen folk.
Jesco scratches at his scalp. “Never looked at it that way before.”
Dexter shrugged. “I reckon it don’t matter too much now,” he said. “I think folks deep down prefer that the world ended. Everything’s all mutated an’ the people keep gettin’ dumber, but at least it lets ’em pretend their version of the story’s true.”
I think that bizarro works best when there is a purpose beyond just the strangeness and the grossness of the story, and Barbee in this book writes well on two levels, discussing the Dirty South as it genuinely is while writing a fantastic story wherein he takes what is real to absurd limits, creating both a social commentary/parody while also creating an apocalyptic other world that is so over-the-top that the social commentary doesn’t seem overbearing. Kind of like the film 2000 Maniacs, as I mention above. Barbee tells the story of a degraded and defeated people using genetic mutations and gangs of feral children and a subnormal sheriff doing battle against evil. All in all, pretty good writing.
I think you can do far worse, bizarro-wise, than read this book. It’s funny, it’s silly and it’s gross. Had this book been edited properly, I could recommend it without reservation, but it’s not. If you think you can overlook the editorial issues in the book, you’ll probably think this is a hoot. And it is a hoot. And even though I was heartily annoyed with the editing, I found this book very entertaining and look forward to Barbee’s next offering.