Forget, for a moment, what Faulkner said about “the human heart in conflict with itself” being the only thing worth writing about. Sometimes we need a writer to make us smile, laugh, and otherwise forget, for a moment, all about our hearts in conflict. Sometimes we need a story about a turkey being saddled up and ridden by a squirrel in a sort of death-or-glory charge against some vultures.
That happens in Larry D. Thacker’s new story collection, Working It Off in Labor County. A lot happens in this fictional locale, set in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. There’s the daft grandfather with serious leatherworking chops who makes miniature saddles for dogs and other animals, down to and including turkeys. There’s fire — lots of fire, much of it set by an arsonist who wins the lottery and gets religion — and a religious miracle. There’s an angel who happens to really be into roller derby. There’s a museum called the Odditorium.
Labor County, then, is like most any other place in the world, real or imagined. Weird.
Which is to say, if you delve deeply enough into a place, any place, you’ll soon realize what strange birds we human beings are. Our wild-hair notions. Our quixotic quests. Our schemes and dreams. The damn-fool things we’ll do to make a buck, or a point. The mess we tend to make of things.
Where some writers of Southern fiction mine this same ground for darkness and violence to make a dear reader shudder, Thacker — Johnson City-based and big-hearted — seeks more to amuse.
Oh, sure, bad things happen. People die. There are poignant moments, sad turns, fits of anger, gunplay, and, yes, the heart does sometimes come into conflict with itself and other foes. But Thacker aims to please. He knows that a writer is, in the end, an entertainer. Or had better be.
So, in the best story, or anyway my favorite, “Riding Shotgun with Dory,” we meet the young narrator’s “Papaw,” whose mind may be going but whose leatherworking skills are fully intact. He makes knife sheaths, belts, and purses …
His specialty, however, was toddler-sized miniature saddles you could strap to a large dog or such sized animal. Talk about cornering the market. …
Now understand these weren’t the same as miniature pony saddles, which were commoner and not very exciting. His version was smaller, perfectly sized for dogs like Buck the lab. They’d even fit goats, sheep, and medium hogs if you wanted such foolishness. The key was his skill with fashioning the saddle sturdy enough not to fail, but light enough not to burden the animal and get PETA called on him.
Then there’s “Hot Ticket,” where we meet Ed, an arsonist who “felt like he was offering a service,” one nobody really seems bothered by, not even the authorities. As he’s about to be consumed by one of his fires, he beseeches the Lord. (There are no atheists in a house afire.)
Given a second chance at life, Ed wins the lottery, takes to preaching, opens the Church of the Holy Fire of God, is tempted to return to his firebug ways, and then —
I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say the author, like the Lord, works in mysterious ways.
The 17 stories in Working It Off in Labor County will make you laugh, warm your heart, shake your head, and read passages aloud to others in the room. They’ll also, and especially, make you think of your own hometown, the wonderful strangeness and weird doings just under the surface there. You’ll wonder if perhaps it was even weirder than you knew.
Maybe squirrels didn’t ride turkeys where you come from. But then again, maybe they did.
David Wesley Williams is the author of the novel Long Gone Daddies (John F. Blair, Publisher, 2013), and his short fiction has appeared in Oxford American, Kenyon Review Online, and in Akashic Books’ Memphis Noir. He lives in Memphis.
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