1/20/15 Review of Joseph D. Haske’s North Dixie Highway A prologue explains that no single “Dixie Highway” exists, but instead the term applies to roads south that reach as far north as Canada. Haske’s story lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Publisher Texas Review Press offers, in part: “Weaving multiple storylines with vivid description of characters and landscape, Haske’s debut novel brings new life and a unique voice to the fiction of rural America. North Dixie Highway is a story of family bonds, devolution, and elusive revenge.”
Author reviewer Larry Fondation adds (in an Amazon editorial review) “It may be fueled by alcohol and anger, but it’s based on love and loyalty: avenging the dead, defending the living.” Definitely fueled by alcohol and anger, I would say—all characters, from grandmothers to 12-year-old boys, are drunk or drinking—and the “love and loyalty” aren’t the stuff about which Hallmark cards are written, rather the stuff that leads to Bosnian wars, in part Haske’s purpose, I suspect, as the author juxtaposes the protagonist’s life as a “peacekeeper,” assassinating at long-range a lone insurrectionist, against his life before and after military duty, including, as a boy, shooting his first bear cub between the eyes.
Reviewer Fondation continues: “Few writers today chronicle the landscape of the static poor—those who do dead-end work with no way out—particularly in a rural setting…Haske joins those ranks.” Earlier I featured here, on Late Last Night Books, Ron Cooper’s Purple Jesus, another book about the rural poor. While Purple Jesus is tragicomic and brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” North Dixie Highway “echoes Hemmingway and Faulkner,” in the opinion of one Amazon customer reviewer with whom I agree.
The book features both protagonist Buck’s military time and the home life in which he hunts and fishes and slaughters chickens and turkeys. More scenes are outdoors than in. Northern Michigan is cold. About a fishing night: “Must be five in the morning now and I’m starving. The venison sandwiches and can of brown beans we had are long gone now. There’s a part of me that keeps thinking any minute the Colonel’s Lincoln’s gonna turn down the path to find our spot on the river. Colonel Henry will light his cigar, take off that beaver-skin hat and scratch his head while he tells me in Tennessee drawl to help Grandma with the food in the backseat. Their dinner leftovers will warm my hands through the foil Grandma wrapped around the plates and I’ll feel that hot air from inside the car, just before it slips out into the dark morning frost and my face will remember what it felt like to not be outside, to not be here.”
Blame all the drinking on the extreme cold or the relative poverty or a culture and era where sons imitate dads who encourage “manly” vices in them: “Jack’s got a good buzz, but Dad keeps a straight face for all that beer they drank. At the cantina, he gave me a half a bottle of Dos Equis and said, ‘That’s enough for you. Don’t tell your mother about that cigarette I let you smoke either.’”
Fathers kick sons out, too. When Buck’s a young man: “I’ve got a bad case of the spleen. That’s some old fashion talk Colonel Henry uses—says it means you’re so pissed off there’s hardly a cure but to let loose—go all out on somebody or something. I’m trying to keep my shit together though cause Dad says I can stay at home, long as I do my part and act like family—don’t go apeshit. Whiskey’s always good to take the edge off, so I stop by the only gas station left in town that has a liquor license, Torrio’s. Normally I’d buy a fifth but I pick-up a half gallon of Kessler’s, to share with the family. If I keep it together this time, I get a second chance—warm bed, shower, food—time to save up for college. No more living in my car. Jobs are hard to come by these days…”
The jobs these men have, when they can get one, aren’t behind desks: “See that cement there,” says Dad. “There’s a body in there…Mason fell in when they were pouring…Nothing they could do but keep on pouring.”
The local success story could be a microcosm of moneyed-interests in current American politics: “The hardware store was making good money so he bought all kind of friends. Even though he was a weasel and a rat-faced momma’s boy, he got popular in some circles, long as he was buying.”
And do you ever watch the Weather Channel and wonder why people are thanking God after he blew away their house with a tornado? “‘What kind of deity kills children and ruins the life of a nine-year-old-boy?’ he asked Ray. Henry and five of his brothers fell in the shaft but only three made it out. ‘What the hell kind a faith a boy have in a god that cruel?’”
The central plot issue in North Dixie Highway is revenge in a feud between two families. When a sniper is needed in Bosnia, Buck’s military superiors turn to him because of his game-hunting experience. At home, his father says: “It’s one thing to kill on the battlefield, another to do it domestic. Most of life is a poker game, son. Not a crap shoot.” Note that his father is talking about not getting caught. And of one failed revenge attempt (I’ll let you guess whether the narrator is speaking here): “I fucked it up. I closed my eyes when I went for the shot. I tried to think of a fourteen point buck like you said. Couldn’t get over he was a man.”
North Dixie Highway is a book for literary fiction readers who want to venture into waters that are foreign to most of us. I grew up in the genteel suburbs of booming, post-War LA. I do, however, remember visiting my uncle and aunt in Dearborn, Michigan and watching her drink a beer while she fried eggs for breakfast. And in my family the story was that my great grandfather, in the mountains of Kentucky, was mortally shot while horseback, the victim of a feud between two families.
My favorite line in North Dixie Highway: “‘Let’s get a beer,’ says Dad. ‘We need to work this out with clear heads.’”