Marred by Attitude

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
P.T. Deutermann
Author of Review
Aaron Barlow

A review of Spider Mountain by P.T. Deutermann (New York: St. Martin's, 2007).

In 1983, when his The Dark Fantastic first appeared, suspense writer Stanley Ellin (one of the best of his generation and a great influence on the currently popular Jonathan Lethem) worried that his newest book would be found offensive by some readers. Why? Because the first of the two narrators is an overt racist. 1 Ellin tries to soften what he knew would be negative reactions by having that character invent a word to use instead of the most common epithet used against African-Americans, but the fact remains -- that narrator is racist.

The book, however, is not. The other narrator, the one who ultimately elicits our sympathy, is involved in an interracial relationship and ultimately thwarts the racist. But, because the racist "speaks" first, people can be easily put off, throwing down the book and walking away in a huff.

It's not just the attitudes of narrators and other characters, of course, that can make people averse to reading certain works. The (at least occasional) anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot and overt fascism of Ezra Pound have long colored the way readers approach them -- with some rejecting them out of hand, the skill of their craft notwithstanding. It doesn't even matter that, in much of the work of each, there is no sign of anti-Semitism or fascism. Readers are sometimes unable to separate the creator from the creation.

P.T. Deutermann, his most recent novel Spider Mountain shows, shares with Ellin's narrator and with T.S. Eliot a hatred for a certain class of people. He is completely upfront about it in this book, his latest tale of detective Cam Richter. The question is, does his attitude have an impact on the value of the work?

To me, it does. In this case, at least. It made reading this book as distasteful as reading anything I've picked up by the most overt racist writer or anti-Semite, for disdain permeates the work. Even at the start: it opens with a dedication making clear that the attitude shown within is also the author's:

This book is dedicated to all the seemingly anonymous folks, government, faith-based, or just plain charitable, who work out in the hills and hollers of Appalachia, tending to the people and their children who only think they can take care of themselves.

Say what?

OK, negative attitudes towards Appalachians are pretty much a given in America -- "hillbillies" are the one group it's fine for even a liberal to hate -- but that doesn't mean it should be acceptable to cast off an entire group of people as incompetent -- or worse. Deutermann's words resonate antebellum attitudes towards African-Americans by their owners: "Why, we're doing our slaves a favor. They could never survive on their own." Deutermann, of course, certainly would not make such a statement about blacks (our culture now makes people mask such feelings) -- but he's blithely and openly willing to denigrate another whole section of the American population, and on as flimsy and sickening a basis.

When I first saw the words of that dedication, posted on a listserv for Appalachian studies, my jaw dropped, though I shouldn't have been surprised: such "acceptable" hatred for the Scots-Irish based ethnic group centered in the mountains has been around since I was a child, and was recently even exhibited by the novelist Jane Smiley, writing on the Huffington Post. Still, it hurt.

Deutermann peppers his books with denigrations of Appalachians, each one a slap on the face:

"... All my guys have most of their teeth and can speak using the occasional two-syllable word." [16]

"...And some knuckle-dragging, slope-faced, slack-jawed, drooling brute who can't even speak English..." [37]

His accent was mountain, but not tree-stump ignorant. [47]

"... tenth-generation welfare rednecks composting in their trailers..." [91]

There's lots more, but it's too depressing for someone like me, with Appalachian roots on both sides of his family, to even type them out. Deutermann generally puts these phrases into the mouths of his characters (or of his narrator Richter) but they come from him, as the dedication makes clear. This isn't a book like Ellin's, where the attitudes are meant to be destroyed by the progress of the narrative.

Aw, heck. It gets worse:

"Because the children have little value to a certain stratum of the population. As in, she was a' lookin' pretty damn good for thirteen, but then she done got her a damn kid hung on her. And if it was her daddy who did the hanging on, then the child become disposable." [188]

Baby threw up his hands. "I'm talking some truly damaged DNA here," he said. "Yes, they're innocent children. But their chances of succeeding amongst the human gene pool are minimal, at best." [189-190]

This much is true: there's a great deal of snobbery towards Appalachians, especially among those who have moved to the mountains from elsewhere (and there are many of those, these days). Ignoring it in a book set up in the hills of western North Carolina would be as bad as ignoring the racism that, even today, permeates American society. But Deutermann is not simply presenting the attitudes he finds; he is actively promoting his own.

At its most charitable, what we have here is the attitude of an outsider who came into the hills -- perhaps to "do good" -- someone who ended up working with people he never understood and, as a result eventually soured on them. Deutermann, however, doesn't really fit that model, for his was a long and distinguished career in the Navy (according to his website). Still, he is taking out frustrations that came from somewhere -- and is presenting as his "good guy" characters who came to the mountains to assist people who never wanted the help in the first place. I've seen the type, first as a child in the mountains and today while living in Brooklyn. They come around with great ideals but are battered by the apparent unwillingness of the culture they want to "help." Sometimes, the frustration resulting from years of trying to find an entry into an alien culture turns into hatred.

It's an old story, one related to colonialism, a story of the attitudes in the metropole towards the periphery. The people from the (in its own perception) vibrant cultural center see themselves as having something to offer those on the edges (either physically or metaphorically). And they tend to react negatively when their largess is rejected. Their cultural bias is so strong that they can't see that -- just perhaps -- the people they want to "help" don't need their assistance at all. Their arrogance is so great that they can't imagine rejections of their offerings as anything but signs of mulish stupidity.

The question remains, however: do Deutermann's (or any author's, for that matter) attitudes have an impact on the value of the book as a work of art? Personally, I would like to be able to answer, "No." But I am as human as Deutermann, and I bring my own prejudices into my reading, just as he does into his writing. As a child of Appalachia, I cannot honestly remove myself from reaction to the author's attitudes any more than an African can to Joseph Conrad's when reading Heart of Darkness.

Conrad, however, with his layers of narration, effectively removes himself from the worst of the attitudes presented in his book, making it possible for his book to be read with the distaste directed at the characters and less so at the author. In that dedication, however, Deutermann makes it clear that he shares the attitudes of his characters' and he presents no Huck Finn-like recognition that the attitudes of a culture might contravene the "natural" human recognition of the value of other humans.

Conrad presents a complexity of attitude that made it possible for V.S. Naipaul (of ancestry from India but born and raised in Trinidad) to write his A Bend in the River, a look at attitudes of race (in part) from a very different perspective. By showing a range of racist and other attitudes, Mark Twain, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, allows his book to be used to understand the deep complexities of American attitudes towards race. Deutermann, on the other hand, is simplistic in his outlook, presenting a dead end: this is the way it is. That makes his book particularly hard to take.

The plot of Spider Mountain revolves around the nefarious activities of one "Grinny" Creigh, matriarch of a nasty clan in a remote North Carolina county adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Detective Richter's attempts to shed light on her activities are complicated by the fact that the local sheriff is also her brother and that state and federal authorities are reluctant to get too involved in local affairs. There are plenty of vicious dogs, fires, shootings -- and even a lynching and an attack by a wild boar. This is a suspense novel of the James Lee Burke variety: tough, tough characters facing down enemies of equal strength and greater nastiness. It lacks the sadness about violence and the recognition of its consequences, however, that raises Burke above so many others of the genre.

Though he writes well enough and manages his plot with reasonable skill, Deutermann offers us little that sparks thought or deepens understanding. Nothing in the book overcomes his prejudice (tantamount to racism) enough to allow us to "forgive" him for the sake of what we might learn or the beauty he might create. Long before he wrote the book, it seems from my reading, Deutermann had determined what "we" mountain people are like -- and that's all there is to it. So I, now having learned what he is like, will never again pick up one of his books.

1 According to his bio at , Stanley Ellin was "one of the modern masters of the genre. Ellin won three Edgar Allan Poe Awards and the Mystery Writers of America's prestigious Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement." His second novel featuring the character John Milano, The Dark Fantastic (1983), "was rejected by Random House because of its insufficient political correctness in dealing with racial problems and attitudes in New York. For most of the readers it was clear, that the author did not share the racist, hate-filled opinions of his character, Professor Kirwan."

About the Author: Aaron Barlow teaches English at CUNY -- Brooklyn branch and, on weekends, runs his store/gallery, Shakespeare's Sister, in Brooklyn, NY. The author of The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology (Praeger, 2005), he is a board member and citizen journalist for ePluribus Media.
ePluribus Contributors: Carol White, cho, roxy