Monday, September 6, 2010

Pulitzer Project: The Store

This turned out to be another one that I flat out could not finish.  Call me shallow as a reader, but I have a hard time sustaining interest in novels when the primary feeling the main characters inspire is disgust.  I really find it hard to believe this book beat out Mutiny on the Bounty for the Pulitzer prize for best novel in 1933.

Thomas S. Stribling's The Store is the middle part of a trilogy set in northern Alabama, the city of Florence and the rural area around it.  The trilogy follows the fortunes of the Vaiden family, with the first book set during the decade of the Civil War, the second about 20 years later right around the time Grover Cleveland was running for president, and the third is apparently set in the early twentieth century.  Stribling was from Alabama and knew the Florence area well.  His characterizations do feel real.

Stribling is also a decent writer.  Other than his extensive use of dialect, especially when his black characters are speaking, the book flows well.  It would be easy reading if it wasn't so incredibly depressing. 

And why is it depressing?  Well, for a start, a big chunk of the novel is taken up with the white characters pissing and moaning about the fact that the (and I will use the term repeated over and over and over in the novel) niggers no longer know their place.  It's been almost 20 years since the Confederates lost the damn war but they're still not willing to concede times have changed -- they all want to go back to the glory days of slavery. 

Although, come to think of it, that doesn't sound a whole lot different than some of the stuff we've been hearing at Tea Party rallies, does it?  Some things apparently never change.

Then when you realize that as you're getting to know the characters that every single one of them is either doomed (usually through his or her own stupidity and/or greed) or remarkably sleazy, turning the pages becomes harder and harder.  Col. Vaiden figures out his old nemesis, the general store owner, Handback, has a secret that would get him drummed out of the Methodist church if it came out -- Handback is keeping a black mistress, Gracie, a quadroon.  Gracie in turn has a son who is 7/8s white and could "pass" if he lived almost anywhere else in the country; unfortunately, in Florence he's known as "that white nigger," because everyone knows who his mother is, and he suffers even more abuse than blacks who are visibly black because he has the gall to look white.  Gracie fantasizes about leaving Florence, going north and telling people she's Mexican, because she knows both she and Touissant (her son) would be better off someplace else.  She never does, at least not when it would have made a difference, and that's typical of many of the characters -- the likable ones can see a way out, but don't take it; the despicable ones continue being despicable.  (Vaiden also has a history with Gracie, but it's one he never thinks about -- back before the war, he was jilted by his fiancee.  His response to being jilted was to go out to the stables and rape Gracie, who at that time belonged to his family.) 

Col. Vaiden uses the knowledge of the black mistress to blackmail Handback into giving him a clerk's position at the store.  Socially, it's a come-down for Vaiden (he's a war hero, famous locally for his actions at Shiloh, and his family used to have money), but he does need the salary.  It doesn't take him long to figure out that a good deal of Handback's financial success is due to his shady business methods and willingness to screw over the customers who can't complain:  he always short-weights purchases by black customers, for example, giving them 12 ounces of bacon while making them pay for a full pound.  He owns a number of tenant farms, and he cheats his sharecropping tenants, too:  on top of taking the normal share, he charges extra, more than the going rate, for ginning the cotton and having it shipped. 

Thus, when Col. Vaiden sees an opportunity to rip off Handback, he doesn't hesitate. He ships 500 bales of cotton to New Orleans.  Through sheer coincidence, the river floods right after the cotton is shipped.  Handback thinks it's been washed away by the floodwaters, and despairs -- it's an enormous financial blow to lose the cotton, one from which he might not be able to recover.  Col. Vaiden immediately realizes that if Handback thinks the cotton is lost, it's a chance for Vaiden to pocket the entire proceeds of the sale. 

And that's the point at which I gave up.  Handback was off somewhere having hysterics (and for all I know blowing his brains out), and Col. Vaiden was gloating over the $48,000 bank draft he had just received.  He was beginning to feel twinges of paranoia because he's realized the black crew of the tug that took the barge of cotton down to New Orleans might talk, and Handback will figure out the truth.  He's also realizing he can't go waltzing into his local bank with the check, because for sure the tellers will say something.  He's got to cash the draft fast before Handback can notify the authorities in New Orleans to put a hold on it, but he's agonizing over where and how.

It struck me then that I really didn't care.  I didn't care if Col. Vaiden got away with his scheme, I didn't care if his overweight wife lived or died (based on reviews I read before I started the book, she apparently dies; one of the subplots involves her apparent late life pregnancy, so maybe she shuffled off this mortal coil in childbirth) (one of the more repellent aspects of the book is Stribling's descriptions of poor fat Ponny), I didn't care if Handback kept right on banging Gracie and then going off to church to complain about the niggers and bitch about the Republicans like every other white man in Florence, I didn't care if the white postmaster died of loneliness because he was the only white Republican in town and thus a social pariah. 

The good news about this book?  I checked it out from the library, so the only thing it cost me was my time.


  1. I feel like you deserve some kind of award for getting that far into the book.

  2. It is reasonably well written, which is one reason I got about halfway through before deciding it wasn't worth the effort.

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  4. I wouldn't call you "shallow" as a reader just because you chose not to finish a book you didn't like. Life is too short to waste on bad books, even bad books that others have deemed good enough to win some sort of prize - especially when you think about all the really good books out there and the fact that no one could possibly live long enough to read all of them....

    Kudos to you for quitting before it got even more intolerable.

  5. Interesting how many of these books chosen for the prize were not the books which endured with the public.

  6. I've never read many novels, nonfiction is strange enough for me.


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