Virginian violence

Young American Pinckney Benedict pulls no punches in his latest novel Dogs of God. Thom Dibdin talked to him about

depravity, dope and the King James


Affection suffuses Pinckney Benedict's stories like the veins ofgold that run through the Blue Ridge Mountains of his home state. He first started writing as ‘a cure for homesickness‘ when he was away at college. so it is unsurprising that his love and warmth for West Virginia and the people who inhabit its wild hogback mountains. decrepit bars and impoverished towns shines through. Not that his affection is marred by the son of gentle fiction which would gain tourist board approval.

Benedict is of a generation that writes with passion and anger about the urban jungle of its birth. although his stomping ground is the bucolic jungle. His first novel Dogs of God, like his first two books of short stories. is set in a pastoral wilderness through which feral dogs and pigs run. dispensing destruction with only slightly less mindless ease than the human characters. The two foci of the novel are Goody. a bare knuckle fighter. naive and wondering. yet capable of killing a man in the ring and Tannhauser a cruel twelve-fingered drug grower who sees himself as a new model for humanity.

‘Dope in West Virginia. at least as far as l

understand it. is the biggest cash crop grown in the state.‘ says Benedict. ‘lt's the biggest cash crop in all

the border states in the United States: Tennessee.

Kentucky, West Virginia. in these fairly impoverished states it is a source of sometimes very great wealth. In the place I come from. literacy levels are not high and those kinds ofconditions often breed a person who does not have a wide vocabulary of reactions to choose from so he resorts frequently and fairly often to violence.‘

Benedict: ‘When you have a guy strapped into a chair being beaten to death with truncheons, the question becomes how to depict that scene without being pornographic about it.’

Although his characters are unable to control their violence. Benedict retains a steady hand in his

1 splattered paragraphs. Rather, in the spurt of awe“-

perfect expression of something that both fascinates

'. of Lot, in Sodom who sacrifices his daughters to the

, apology for his motives. or anything like that. It

simple moral uplift.‘ Dogs of God by Pinckney Benedict is published by

manipulation oftheir cruelty. Unlike such clinically visceral work as the recent Green River Rising by Tim Willocks. Benedict does not wallow in blood

formed chapter he will create an atmosphere of tension. only to unleash emel slices of mayhem in the last few lines.

‘When you have a guy strapped into a chair being beaten to death with truncheons,‘ explains Benedict. ‘the question becomes how to depict that scene, which i very much wanted to write. without being pornographic about it. without being voyeuristic and without exploiting what you are writing about. i chose to give the outlines of things without forcing people‘s faces into it.’

Even the bare-knuckle fights don't grind your face in it. but depict the depravity of a situation where two grown men are trying to kill each other in a ring while all around the spectators could not care less. it is the sort of situation which Benedict finds both horrible and impossible to turn away from. ‘in the same way a traffic accident is. You don‘t want to see that but at the same time how do you look away? it is an essential part of human nature and seems to be the

and repels us.‘

While the nature. geography and incredible people of West Virginia provide much of Benedict's inspiration. he also professes to be a huge fan ofthe Old Testament ofthe Bible in the King James version. He describes the language as both amazing and uncompromising, but it is the stories such as that

mob that grab and hold his attention. ‘Lot’s choices are unacceptable and yet he has to make a choice.’ says Benedict. ‘That is the kind of story that i would love to be able to tell. in language that makes no

never fudges and it never pretends to be a tale of

Secker at £8. 99 and his collection of short stories. The Wrecking Yard is published by Minerva at £5. 99.

Reality writes

Rachel Bush is nursing a hangover this morning - the result of lacing her World Cup viewing with too many beers apparently. The pressures on a rising young literary star are clearly taking their toll. In fact, since 26- year-old Cusir won the Whitbread First Novel prize last year she has rarely been out of the publicity spotlight. Described as being everything from ‘young, bright and sexy’ (The Mail On Sunday) to ‘a writer with a distinctive voice and a poet’s eye for detail’ (The Sunday Telegraph), Cusit could be

transition; trying to adjust from


g ., i, l romance and friendships. However, .‘ " Agnes’ disarmineg blithe humour and charm, coupled with an affecting element of realism on Cusit’s part, seem to have defeated most cynical

Critics have been swift to observe the similarities between Cusit’s own life and that of her heroine’s. Both went to Oxford, both had depressing editorial iobs and both led rather unsatisfactory lives for a period in

autobiographical content. ‘lt’s nonsense,’ she says. ‘l think that it’s something that happens to young writers pretty exclusively. For some reason it’s only after you get over the age of 40 people actually seem to understand that fiction arises, as often as not, out of fact and not always the imagination.’

Having recently returned from a few months travel in South America where she was ‘clearing my head at high

Bush: ‘The tone of the novel comes from a period in my life when i felt a dlsaffectlon with

the route that had been mapped out for me.’

altitude’, Cusit is now buckling down to her new role as fiction reviewer for The Times and getting to grips with her second novel, The Temporary, about a vacant beauty keen to use her face to go places in the land of secretaries and bosses.

excused for succumbing to the same twentysomethlng identity crisis experienced by her heroine Agnes Day.

Happily, the chatty and articulate author seems light years away trom her creation. Agnes is a young woman .ogt of kilter with the world and in

student security to an undefined adult role among the harsh realities of post- student life in London. Cusir’s literary slacker has been criticised for the fine line she treads between self- analysis and indulgent introspection as she scrabbles to cope with failed

London. ‘The tone of the novel comes from a period in my life when i felt a dlsaffectlon with the route that had been mapped out for me,’ concedes Cusit. She adamantly dismisses any further suggestions of

With a bimbo heroine superseding Agnes, in this next novel there is no fear of that awful ‘autoblographical’ word creeping into the next batch of Interviews. (Ann Donald)

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusit is published by Picador at £5.99.

The. List 15—28 July l994 75