A review of Tison Pugh’s new book that examines humor, sexuality and the Southern literary canon.
The first thing you think of when you think of Southern literature might be a dark, Gothic atmosphere, but the second is probably humor. Southerners’ ability to laugh at almost anything is one of the things that defines our regional character. It’s also true that much Southern humor contains a dark streak, and it’s this ability to seamlessly blend the comic and tragic by so many of the region’s writers that author Tison Pugh elevates and celebrates in his book Precious Perversions.
Published by LSU Press in March, this novel in the genre of Southern literary studies argues for the inclusion of gay comic authors as long-standing, defining voices in the field. Pugh challenges the premises that marginalize some of our less-celebrated writers, arguing that feminist Florence King deserves a spot in the Southern literary canon just as much as Faulkner.
In addition to Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady author King, Precious Perversions includes chapters on Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Rita Mae Brown, Dorothy Allison and David Sedaris. Although these writers all share a homosexual experience, their work transcends their own sexuality, causing us to laugh (and sometimes cry) at the human experience they relate on the page.
In the introduction, Pugh writes that the re-emergence of the South as a “literary powerhouse” into the 21st century is due in part to authors like John Kennedy Toole, Alice Walker, Fannie Flagg, John Waters, Allison and Sedaris, who “collectively attest to the vibrancy of queer experiences throughout the region as a source of inspiration.”
Part of the reason for that is “disparities between appearance and reality” that “allow fertile conditions for irony to flourish.” Pugh points out that many of these authors face the conundrum of writing about a place that refuses to acknowledge their sexuality. Southerners are adept at looking the other way and pretending things are the way they want them to be rather than the way they actually are. Tennessee Williams perhaps dealt with this tendency best in his work “with the necessary double posturing of humor camouflaging desires taboo for his time.”
Audiences can’t help but laugh at Williams’ masochistic male characters and their frustrated female counterparts, but as he states in his Memoirs: “I wish to have a broad audience because the major thrust of my work is not sexual orientation, it’s social.” What Williams does is transform gay experiences into universal ones. Maybe Brick’s hiding in the closet, but maybe he’s not. That all depends on the director, actor and the audience members.
While Pugh examines the camp and sadomasochistic aspects of Williams work, he focuses on the insult and Gothic excess of Truman Capote. Praising Capote’s literary achievements despite his work’s mixed critical reception, Pugh poses the question as to whether presenting himself as as serious literary artist undermined Capote’s biting sense of humor. His work on John Huston’s 1953 film “Beat the Devil” is where “Capote vented his sense of humor most flagrantly,” employing camp humor into a straight caper flick. A flop at the time, the film is now a cult classic and thought to be the first camp movie.
Williams complements Capote on his humor in his Memoirs, writing that he was full of mischief and always up for a prank. Pugh remarks that a sharp wit defined Capote’s public persona, but few of his works showcase that side of his talent. He uses the short stories “Children on Their Birthdays” and “My Side of the Matter” as exceptions and examples of Capote’s black humor. Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, turns more toward the Gothic than humorous, and unfortunately for the author, his unfinished Answered Prayers leaned more toward insult than comedy.
Still, Capote valued his humor above all else in the end and if you read accounts of his childhood growing up with Harper Lee in Alabama, you’ll find his wit developed at an early age as a survival mechanism much like other comedians. In a 1972 self interview referenced by Pugh, Capote asks himself what he finds frightening. His reply: “The thought that I might lose my sense of humor.”
Chapters on King’s and Brown’s queer conservatism and the gender politics of Southern humor follow. King herself was a contradictory figure — sometimes a feminist and sometimes an antifeminist — but her best known work Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is celebrated for being devoid of shame when it comes to same-sex desire. Rubyfruit Jungle author Rita Mae Brown “celebrates the pleasures possible for women who refuse to allow social stigma to condemn them to lives of loneliness and misery.”
Pugh states that she “smashed encrusted stereotypes of the humorless lesbian” with her success of Rubyfruit Jungle, but Brown went on to publish many more lesbian comic novels, along with poetry, mystery and screenplays. She praises Mark Twain as a comic role model and saw humor as a fundamental aspect of herself. Despite criticism that she used too many puns and recycled jokes from book to book, “Brown’s fiction stands out as uniquely humorous, uniquely feminist, and uniquely Southern.”
If you’ve had the chance to meet Dorothy Allison or hear her speak, then there’s no question as to whether she’s funny or not. Allison says she learned to charm a room working as a waitress at age 16, but humor is also a way of softening the powerful message she’s trying to deliver. Allison’s chapter is titled “Bravado and the Comic Limits of Trauma.” Her most famous work, Bastard Out of Carolina, deals with the rough issues of poverty, abuse and neglect, but she manages to find humor amid all the pain.
As Pugh points out, “The truth emerges in the necessity of the comic to counterbalance the tragic, for lives not to become unhinged by the darkness they did not create.” Precious Perversions examines Allison’s talents through her essays, poetry and her masterpiece that is Bastard. Her own bravado is evident in The Women Who Hate Me, her 1983 book of poetry that uses humor to claim her defiant voice.
Allison’s voice in Bastard is quite different in that of abused child narrator Bone, but the Boatwright family use humor to amuse each other and ultimately survive. The 1992 book’s sharp one-liners are all Allison’s own and show the emergence of her comic voice in the field of Southern literature. “Along with fury, frustration, longing, and love, Allison’s southern landscape comes alive through her humor,” Pugh writes. Like Capote and Brown, Allison says the one things she knows for sure is her sense of humor.
Precious Perversions concludes with outsider David Sedaris, who moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, from New York at the age of seven. Describing his life in this new region in a style that could be called “hysterical Southernness,” “Sedaris paints himself as yet another southern eccentric, a character taken from the pages of McCullers, Williams, or any other great writer of the decadent, gothic South.”
Sedaris presents most of his narratives as memoirs, although he’s admitted to blurring the line between fact and fiction. At the same time his Northern mother was doing everything she could to rescue her children from the South, Sedaris was soaking in the region’s idiosyncrasies. Despite living in New York, Chicago, France and Japan, Sedaris has maintained a relationship with his childhood home throughout his life.
“On the border between fact and fiction throughout his memoirs, Sedaris’s sense of geography expands his humor while also providing its regional foundations,” Pugh writes. “In this light, his many returns to his southern home demonstrate the pull of family and long-familiar landscapes.”
Precious Perversions concludes with this sense of home or “happy place,” as Sedaris refers to it. All of these authors left the South at some point in their lives — Capote to live in New York, Allison in California — but they returned to their homeland through their work. No matter how complex their relationship with the South, this group of writers defends the region while at the same time exposing — and poking fun at — its many contradictions that provide so much fodder for their work.