SIX ANGLES OF WRATH
IN A TIME when reliable standards of personal conduct have allegedly eroded and, no longer anchored by religious conviction or cultural cohesion, have diminished to irresolute situational postures and secular mumbles, an older, less elastic code of honor may seem vastly appealing, even heroic. To avert the confusions attendant on choice, such codes are simplified, starkly so, but clearly: Do that to me, you can rely on me to do this to you. Do that to my kin, watch for smoke from your garage. Say that to my wife, and this is the bog where your worried relatives will find you facedown and at peace forever. Should it require the efforts of generations to uphold this code, to respond to the responses, so be it. Such codes ask an awful lot of adherents (my own great grandfather was an adherent and, when a slander on his wife reached his ears, obeyed the code promptly and went door to door with a pistol throughout the neighborhood I still live in, but, shrewdly, no one he encountered would admit to being the source and he did not get the satisfaction of killing some poor wretched gossip, and his wife attempted suicide by drinking Paris Green while he was out thoroughly publicizing the slander) and deliver little, but they yet exist.
John Moon, the resolute, pitiful, and confused man at the heart of
Andrei Tarkovsky, the legendary Russian film director, once said, “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thought, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
My personal list of nasty country boy and girl writers who so admirably insist on sharing their “ploughing and harrowing” with the wider world, representing, if you will, is select but with room for more: Jim Thompson, Flannery O’Connor, Tom Kromer (
BEFORE THE SUN is up, John Moon has showered, drunk two cups of coffee, and changed into his blue jeans, sweatshirt, and Timberland hiking boots. He has eaten two pieces of toast, a bowl of cereal, and put out food for his wandering dog. Before leaving the trailer by the front door, he gets his 12-gauge shotgun and a handful of slugs from the gun cabinet off the kitchen.
The grass is damp with dew and the early-June air is heavy and already warm, promising it will be hot within a few hours. A mourning dove is cooing in a tree somewhere to John’s left. Down the road, past the treeline, he hears the gentle clanging of cowbells and the lowing of Cecil Nobie’s herd on its way from the pasture to Nobie’s barn to be milked. The sun is just starting to peek out over the crest of the mountain directly east of the one John lives two-thirds to the top of.
Gazing down at the converging roads winding like miles of dusty brown carpet through the hollow below him, John sees a set of headlights descending the right fork, piercing the three-quarters dark. He thinks this strange since only he and the Nobies live on the right fork and unless there’d been an accident at Nobies’, in which case someone from there would likely have called John, none of them would be driving into town at four-thirty in the morning. John wonders if the vehicle might belong to a conservation officer, then decides he’s being paranoid. No green cap is going to get up before dawn to search for would-be poachers. Thinking two teenagers must have fallen asleep parking the night before, John shrugs, then starts walking up the mountain.
He hikes five hundred yards or so up to the road’s end, then turns right and heads on a narrow path into a forest of pine trees on the state preserve. There’s no wind and it’s so quiet in the forest that, even on a soft bed of pine needles, John’s footsteps echo in his ears as if he is treading on snow. Every few steps, he stops, listens for several seconds, then, not hearing anything, moves on. He is looking for a ten-point buck he has seen three times in the last week, most recently on the previous afternoon from his back porch, where, through binoculars, he watched it graze for several minutes at the edge of the preserve before it loped into the pines. John has figured the buck has a bed somewhere in the pines. He has balanced in his mind the value of a hundred fifty pounds of dressed venison versus the thousand dollars in fines and possible two months’ jail time it would cost him in the unlikely event that he is caught shooting the deer out of season on state land, and has decided the risk is worth it.
As he approaches the far edge of the pines after which the forest turns denser with deciduous trees and brush, in the canopy of pine boughs a crow starts cawing. Several others join in. His senses suddenly heightened, John cocks the shotgun. The sharp click of the engaging mechanism increases the crows’ agitation. A squirrel or a chipmunk jumps from one tree to another above him. A pinecone drops near his feet. Several smaller birds—