I DIDN’T MIND much when Cormac McCarthy killed off his cowboy heroes, though I loved them all dearly. I did not even mind when he assassinated nine-tenths of the human race in post-apocalyptic mayhem, as I love the general population somewhat less than cowboys. But when I read the back cover blurb of Sonny Brewer’s The Widow and the Tree about the murder of a five-hundred-year-old Alabama live oak, I trembled as I thumbed the first page.
And I had good reason to. Like all serious literature, The Widow and the Tree is a marvelous and confusing little book. The Ghosthead Oak, with a cancerous gall like a twisted human face, has a name, while the human characters do not, a curiosity I’ll let doctors of English ponder. But here are the unnamed walking wounded: The jaded game warden and his new deputy, just hired after being fired from a newspaper job in Florida — you know, family connections. The son; the drunken father; the beat-down-to-nothing mother; the dead-eye vengeful uncle; the veteran of Vietnam Swift boat close combat; the beautiful young widow. The goat farmer who keeled over stone dead in the middle of a hurricane. Throw in half a bushel of loaded revolvers, a dull ax, and the first black panther on the Alabama coast in over a century, and you got one hell of a story. Make no mistake, this book is indeed serious work and Sonny Brewer should be right proud of it.
But don’t forget the tree. As a seedling in 1536, Desoto brushed it with his boot heels. Some centuries later, Indians reported it loaded with fireflies, flashing like roadhouse neon. It’s full of wild honey and you can dip it with bare hands if you smoke the bees first. The widow’s father is buried in its dappled shade; her grandfather prophesied it would someday be watered with blood.
You like this yet? I damn sure do.
Pot dealers stashing their stashes, trysting trespassers leaving beer cans and the “fumblings of love” in the grass, the veteran who took refuge there as an abused child, the warden who wants the tree and the three acres it covers for a mini state park. Or so he says.
Meanwhile, the widow picks up cans and condoms until she finally stumbles upon the veteran who left only footprints and catfish heads all the way down to his vintage Airstream along the river. And she follows him home, of course.
The book’s jacket hails Sonny Brewer as a master storyteller, which indeed he is, so firmly rooted in the southern oral tradition he makes good writing seem easy when it is anything but that. Consider this: “when he was riled, his rage was bigger than a blue thunderhead, meaner than a coiled moccasin.” On rare occasions, Sonny Brewer wrestles moccasins of his own prose, gets muddy but never gets bad bit. “This was his own quiet preserve of dinosaur habitat, and even though those rough beasts were gone now, arm thick moccasins and jack-jawing birds he couldn’t name were suitable replacements for those mythic reptiles.”
Calm down, Sonny, don’t mess with snakes like that. We know dinosaurs are long gone from Alabama, even if you have called a panther back.
The Widow and the Tree is spare, mean, loving, pungent. Sonny Brewer knows the Alabama coast, a culture threatened sure as the Ghosthead Oak.