Monday, June 18, 2007

Dead mule alert

What makes a story Southern as opposed to merely being set in the South, or written by an author living in or hailing from that geographical region? Participants in the Southern Reading Challenge will draw their own conclusions, but Jerry Leath Mills has determined that "there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?"

(Let me interject that I am a bonafide Southerner, a born and bred North Carolina hillbilly, one whose acquaintance with mules goes way back*, but one who has been fortunate enough never to have witnessed a mule's demise or its carcass** except in literature--with my first being Jumper in Fred Gipson's Savage Sam in, probably, third or fourth grade. All I have to say about this lack in my life is "Whew.")

I encountered no dead mules in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, my first read for the Challenge, but O'Connor was perverse that way--she honed in on the peacock, of course, a familiar worthy of a Southern lit goddess--likely refusing to associate with dead mules merely as a method of avoiding comparison to William Faulkner, who killed mules like nobody else's business.

Truman Capote had no compunction against any of that. He introduces us to a very nice mule, John Brown, early on in Other Voices, Other Rooms. John Brown, an old tan mule with "forlorn hoofclops" belongs to Joel Knox's family at Skully's Landing, the homeplace he has been summoned to following the death of his mother in New Orleans, where he has been living with his aunt. Expecting to be met by his father once he makes his way to Noon City, Joel is instead directed to the livery yard where he meets "a kind of gnomish little Negro," Jesus Fever, who tells him he's been waiting to drive him back to the Landing. After Fever threatens John Brown with "outlandish torture," the mule "skillfully" makes his way home with Joel in the back of the wagon and Fever asleep over the reins.

Periodically, as Joel gets to know his off-kilter stepmother Amy and her kimono-wearing cousin Randolph, as well as Fever's daughter Zoo, uncovering the sordid truth about his father and what kind of life he can expect at the Landing, John Brown will enter or exit a scene with quiet dignity, for example, helping Joel and Zoo drag Fever's cedar chest to the grave after the old man dies: "Papadaddy surely did love you, John Brown: trustiest mule he ever saw, he said so many a time: now you remember that."

Then Amy and Randolph get wind that Joel's aunt Ellen is coming to visit (Joel remains unaware of this, as he is that his earlier letter to Ellen describing conditions at the Landing was removed from the mailbox by Randolph) and Randolph abruptly takes Joel to visit his hermit friend Little Sunshine in the abandoned Cloud Hotel, where he's been living since the owner struck a match to the gasoline-soaked mattress on which she lay decades before. They ride John Brown, using a croquer sack for a saddle and rope for reins, and stopping for lunch so that Randolph can consume a fruitjar of scuppernong wine.

Swan stairs soft with mildewed carpet curved upward from the hotel's lobby; the diabolic tongue of a cuckoo bird, protruding out of a wall-clock, mutely proclaimed an hour forty years before, and on the room clerk's splintery desk stood dehydrated specimens of potted palm. After tying a spittoon onto John Brown's leg, this in order that they could hear him should he wander off, they left him in the lobby, and filed through the ballroom, where a fallen chandelier jeweled the dust, and weather-ripped draperies lay bunched on the waltz-waved floor like curtsying ladies. Passing a piano, over which web was woven like the gauzy covering of a museum exhibit, Joel struck the keys expecting Chopsticks in return; instead, there came a glassy rattle of scuttling feet.

While the men drink in the former owner's private apartment, John Henry ascends the stairs, spittoon clangclanging.

Little Sunshine and Joel go to look for him, Little Sunshine using a kindling from the fire as a torch.

They halted at the foot of the stairs. The mule was nowhere to be seen: the banging of the telltale spittoon had stopped. "John Brown . . . John Brown," Joel's voice enlarged the quiet: he shivered to think that in every room some sleepless something listened. Little Sunshine held his torch higher, and brought into view a balcony which overlooked the lobby: there, iron-stiff and still, stood the mule. "You hear me, suh, come down offen there!" commanded the hermit, and John Brown reared back, snorted, pawed the floor; then, as if insane with terror, he came at a gallop, and lunged, splintering the balcony's rail. Joel primed himself for a crash which never came; when he looked again, the mule, hung to a beam by the rope-reins twisted about his neck, was swinging in mid-air, and his big lamplike eyes, lit by the torch's blaze, were golden with death's impossible face, the figure in the fire.

Quite a relief to see mules quietly grazing in their pastures yesterday on our Father's Day trip to our hometown.


*My parents obtained a pony for me when I was five, no doubt as substitution for the imaginary pony Midget that I had openly cavorted with since swooning over its real life counterpart at the Daniel Boone Wagon Train (a major yearly event at that time in our neck of the woods). They really didn't know what they were doing--the pony turned out to be a stallion (and it came with my older brother and my grandfather and the youngest Cartwright brother's name, which led to some confusion as well) and the mule pastured over on the neighboring ridge fell madly in love with him and could not be disuaded, no matter how heavy or awkward the item tied around its neck, from popping over fences or stall doors to be with him, hence my early acquaintance with mules.

**I have been fortunate enough never to have seen a dead horse or pony, either, though we all thought my first pony had suffered a fatal heart attack the evening he was harnessed and hitched to a cart. He immediately pitched over onto his side there in the driveway and did. not. move. Before either the mule or I could be traumatized for life over the collapse, my cousin the chiropractor, who'd dropped by after supper to say hey, had the presense of mind to shove a sugar cube between his lips, and, after a moment's hesitation, he began to chew. Faker. Little Joe's actual brush with death came when he dared step in a yellow jackets nest under the Japanese cherry tree and enraged the entire wrathful colony. My mother spent the rest of the summer with him on the carport, brushing flies off his horribly scabbed face with a flyswat. The scars faded over time.


  1. Capote is so well known for In cold Blood I forget that he wrote other things too. Thanks for the reminder and the great review. And thanks for the mule and pony stories which provided great comic relief :)

  2. I figured you'd be as much in need of 'em as I was after the demise of poor old John Brown. ;)

  3. I immediately thought of a Richard Wright story with a dead mule in it ... but it hadn't occurred to me that this is a trope of southern fiction -- very interesting! :)


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