Soil is a classic novel of Mississippi, which is another way of saying it’s loaded with beautiful sentences, mud, and a whole lot of crazy. It is no wonder that this first novel falls squarely in the Southern gothic tradition: the author is Jamie Kornegay, an independent bookseller who studied creative writing under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi and who once worked at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, a fifteen-minute amble from Faulkner’s famed Rowan Oak.
Kornegay’s characters—from protagonist Jay Mize, a farmer; to antagonist Danny Shoals, an oversexed deputy sheriff with designs on Mize’s wife; to all of Mize’s neighbors and acquaintances in Tockawah Bottom, a “thankless hole” near the conjunction of the Tockawah River and the Bogue Hoka—are so possessed of Faulknerian insanity, that dampness of mind and soul that seems to ooze out of the Delta flats, and yet are simultaneously possessed of such finely drawn humanity that the reader is tempted to dive into the muck with postmodern glee, and reviewers are tempted to write ridiculously long sentences. It’s that kind of book.
The novel opens with a disturbing scene from midway through the story, and it periodically shuffles through time in a manner that owes as much to Tarantino as to Faulkner. Seen by a hidden observer in a flooded slough, Mize is “gangling and mud-encrusted, gasping in the heat and nervous,” already trapped in the ruined state he inhabits for most the novel. In the book’s backstory, the young husband and father launched a romantic effort to bring “hydro- and aeroponic technology” to the often-flooded river bottom, hoping to create not only a successful farm but also a teaching model for sustainable agriculture. Locals, predictably, were not impressed.
Here’s Kornegay explaining Mize’s motives for this project:
What the naysayers didn’t understand was that it wasn’t some quaint notion of naïve fondness for yesteryear, not even an entrepreneurial move toward trendy organic farming that made him come out here, all the way to nowhere, to invest the family savings on this house and soggy field and all the tools and equipment required to make a proper start. He’d read all the books on climate change, energy crisis and colony collapse. He’d read The Road. He studied the ancient prophecies, the newer ones too, noting all the harbingers of environmental and economic ruin. A comeuppance was due, and he didn’t want to be stuck in town among the bleating mobs when it all went down.
The comeuppance, it turns out, is a massive flood that destroys the farm and drives away Mize’s family when he refuses to abandon his now-hopeless plans. But more than any deluge of rain and mud, it’s Mize’s own apocalypse-fueled paranoia—as common, perhaps, in the modern South as moonshine stills and shotgun weddings were in Faulkner’s day—that proves his undoing. When he discovers a bloated body in a black lake that was once one of his fields, he might take any number of reasonable courses of action, but instead he seizes upon the paranoid notion of destroying all evidence of the corpse lest he be arrested for murder.
In an effort to avoid an imagined conflict with the law, this choice leads inevitably to an actual one. It also leads to darkly comic scenes reminiscent not only of gothic literature but of films like Fargo. Things get out of hand—in one scene an actual human hand is carried through a big-truck mud rally by a delighted dog. The backwoods ne’er-do-well who relentlessly pursues Mize is Danny Shoals, a sheriff’s deputy who uses his Mustang more often to seduce teenagers than to pursue criminals. Shoals, like Mize, provides ample opportunity for a descent into comic caricature, but Kornegay provides an explanation of his behavior that makes him into a surprisingly sympathetic villain.
As the plot twists through ever-darker underbrush, Kornegay’s command of language and character keeps the story from becoming the cartoon a lesser writer might produce of this plot. As grotesque and downright insane events ensue, it becomes clear that this novel is not headed for redemption. As Willie Morris once said of Faulkner’s fiction, it attempts to understand the world by first understanding a place like Mississippi. “There was something disturbed about this character,” Kornegay writes of Jay Mize, and “something familiar, too.” It’s a disturbed familiarity that readers will celebrate.
Michael Ray Taylor teaches journalism at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He is the author of several books of nonfiction and coauthor of a forthcoming textbook, Creating Comics as Journalism, Memoir and Nonfiction.