Whilst contemporary technology-overloaded society may have created a vapid and transient instantly-obsolete fad-app-and-gadget obsessed age, the human heart in conflict with itself is an eternal and unchanging part of life and literature. This is truism is acknowledged by writer Jeff Kerr, whose fine, poetic, internet-and-TV-free tales in this volume evoke a more human and connected and interesting time and tide of human existence.
Hillbilly Rich showcases six short stories set in the Appalachian mountains on the Kentucky and Virginia border. The book’s cover neatly represents the major overarching themes of the fiction inside: alcohol and money and pills and southern discomfort. Kerr populates his writings with sinners and winners and losers and life abusers and drug users and brawlers and bar-crawlers, effortlessly and poetically evoking his characters in his half-dozen utterly human tales of weary-cum-energized woe and murder and suicide and redemption and damnation. If this sounds grim, it’s really not: the portraits painted here are life-affirming and disarming in equal measure too.
That old crime religion is invoked a few times during the stories, and there is a kind of quasi-religious feeling to some of the work (hardly surprising given the geographical region it hails from), but not of a preachy kind. Self-taught Kerr’s writing is almost analogous to the sketch of an ex coalminer in the pages, a man who hears the soft moving call of his God to make him create beautiful works of art in celebration of all existence.
The writer tells us in the fascinating seventh and final piece in the short book, an autobiographical piece explaining the title (‘hillbilly rich’ is a phrase that means you are not financially solvent but have enough to get by), that his work is a celebration and laying down of family lines by someone not born into a traditional bookworm family: “People like me aren’t meant to be literary people. My dad drove a forklift in a warehouse and my mother worked in a plastics factory. Both of my grandfathers were coal miners.”
So Kerr’s work mines rich black gold coalbursting seams of harshly-and-vibrantly-burning family fossil fuel to feed a bright blazing pure-heart conflagration story mosaic: a man seeks to redeem himself by releasing a captive wolf that will carry his image “in the hard run of a red wolf’s memory.” A trucker committing inadvertent infidelity has to defend himself against the husband of the man whose wife he was unknowingly sleeping with. A washed-up country and western star (and all his creator’s stories would make a fine C&W tune, dripping blood and whiskey and pain and emotional chaos) decides to take drastic action in a painful marital matter. And, in the story that is, to my mind the best in the collection, two sociopathic teenagers pointlessly shoot horses in a corral just for the sick and evil and despairing fun of it.
The last line of the latter tale (apparently unfortunately based on a true occurrence) also neatly encapsulates a common constant thread of Kerr’s prose: homespun honkytonk wisdom mixed with beautiful poetry. “There’s a lot of meanness in the world and you can’t trust fences to keep it out,” he intones, in a perfect sucker-punchline to the horrors that have just preceded this piece of simple philosophical truth. The country singer has a “rattling up all night and repenting in the morning” voice. A child scared by an apparition basks in familiar family safety of “unspoken love that chained through generations of blood and struggle to keep the shadows from becoming harder and more dangerous things.”
In the titular essay, the writer tells us that his grandfather would tell him “tales involving animals and their mysterious ways, strange mythical hill beasts, ‘hants and violent events torn straight out of the death ballads my Paw-Paw would tell me. Other stories were told by my parents, uncles and aunts on boozy evenings.” It seems thus that Kerr’s tales are just his way of extending his 180-proof moonshining family oral tradition beyond unfamiliar familial gatherings and injecting it straight into the bloodstream of sedate literary America, often using animal similes to do so; people are compared to raccoons and foxes and snakes, with the cruel mystical beauty of nature in all its red-in-tooth-and-claw gory glory playing just as an important part in the tales as the characters themselves.
The stories in Hillbilly Rich seem almost anachronistic in a way; they could have been written anytime over the course of the second half of the 20th century, pretty much. But that’s just the point here: people are people, and great stories about the human race scratching and clawing itself and drawing confused not-coagulating mountain-running blood will be around for the rest of the human race’s existence. Kerr is a fine, emerging talent; his simple, direct, pure, honest, seemingly effortlessly-honed tales could teach many a more experienced writer what a true season in existential hell or dazed prose heaven is like without breaking a sweat.
Graham Rae is a Scotsman now living in Chicago. He has been published for over 25 years in venues including American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique, Film Threat, 3ammagazine.com, and Realitystudio.com. He had a novel published in 2011 by Creation Books, Soundproof Future Scotland, and he will never see a penny from it. He’s not bitter. Bitter is for lemons.
Jeff Kerr currently lives in Milwaukee, WI. He has deep roots in the southern Appalachian mountains of the Kentucky and Virginia border country. His work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Now and Then, Hardboiled, Plots with Guns, Hardluck Stories, Criminal Class Review and others. He has been a featured reader at Book Soup, San Quentin Prison among other venues. His short story collection, Hillbilly Rich, can be ordered directly at JeffKerr1965@gmail.com.