It has been said that if the South had never existed, the North would have invented it, anyway, so it could have someplace to go and be bad.
Of course, much of the gothic, gators-got-your-granny tourist creation referred to as The South ®™ actually is the North's invention. But the South has held on tenaciously to its strangest traditions and peculiar pastimes, and perhaps the closest kept secret about the South is not what it has done in the past but what it continues to do in the present.
Like hand-fishing or `noodling” for catfish (note: the fish has to swallow your hand first, then you pull it out of the water). Then there's cockfighting. Moonshine. Squirrel Brains. Frog Farms. Pig Guts (chitlins). Coon dogs. And then there's the weird stuff that you have to read for yourself.
`What kind of people enjoy these things?” you might ask. Burkhard Bilger, the author of this one-of-a-kind collection of essays, seems to answer "you'd be surprised.”
Surprise is the operative word in describing the overall effect of Bilger's contemplative and elegantly-written exploration of the South's submerged world of the unexpected and irresistible kinships that exist between the `true believers”: plain folks who do what they do and like what they like with little thought of profit or fame or expediency or eternal salvation or even of self-preservation. Just when you find yourself knee-jerked into getting all self-righteous about some of the "southern comforts” described in this book, Bilger's masterful writing and vivid portraiture grab hold of you and make you pause . . . and reconsider that maybe your world is the odd one. As Bilger points out, there seems to be at least two Americas:
the one we legislate and the one just down the street, inside an abandoned warehouse or a neighbor's basement; the one on television and the one where Santeria rituals are performed and snakes handled, where moonshine glimmers and gamecocks fight.
Indeed, with cockfighting in mind, it is excruciatingly difficult to judge whether the fate of these exalted little gladiators is actually better than that of their anonymous kin who end up as McNuggets. In all seriousness, at least some of the pit birds live and retire to breed more ferocious birds. These fighters at least got to be somebody. They were contenders. Whereas, the mass mechanized death that awaits the confined, beakless, drug-laden birds at the Tyson processing plant—a fate which Bilger depicts in a cool, calm, thoughtful manner that nevertheless promises to sicken the most avowed carnivore—seems far worse than the ferocity and gore of the fighting pit. Bilger seems to suggest—without actually moralizing—that the sheer magnitude of suffering and carnage inherent in the processing plant makes it evil, but the cockfighting ring might merely be sinful. Yet there are no laws prohibiting chicken processing plants—yet.
The other traditions that Bilger explores are mercifully less provocative and polarizing than cockfighting, and they could all be more or less grouped under the activity "having fun.” Indeed, Bilger's skill as a writer is such that he makes you –well, okay, almost makes you (chitlins?! Ugh!)—want to have a go at these traditions yourself. Bilger's empathy is used well, and his understanding of the complex bonds that history has forged between the demands of human necessity and the obligations of human pride is writ large throughout the book. Here is Bilger's portrait of three old-time moonshiners indulging in the common reverie of every American: becoming movie stars:
That breaks them up for a while: three big men in a tiny room, surrounded by mason jars of every color, imagining themselves in those actors' bodies, chasing down some hapless citizen. And for a moment the retirement plans and lenient courts are forgotten, and moonshine seems like only a game again—neither poison nor birthright nor cynical livelihood, just an excuse for grown men to play hide-and-seek in the woods.
Noodling for Flatheads may give you a further insight into the South than you had before—and maybe more insight than you cared to have. But as our rural popular culture becomes increasingly fractured, isolated and distorted, it risks further misunderstanding. As if country people and country ways are becoming just isolated dots that we can recognize as human only when we distance ourselves from them, like looking at pointillism. Ours is an increasingly urban and suburban perspective that functions like a lighthouse, seeing self-illumination wherever it turns, yet refusing to acknowledge the intervals of darkness. Noodling for Flatheads reveals that what survives or thrives in a culture—howsoever violent or gross or strange-- may be a more accurate self-portrait of the way we truly are than any of those false portraits that we have projected onto our concrete and electronic landscapes.
© Copyright 2001 by KNS Maré