The Vine That Ate The South
by J.D. Wilkes
Published 2017 by Two Dollar Radio
$11.99 paperback ISBN 978-1-937512-55-2
By Noah Sanders
The American road trip is a staple of fantasy literature. The journey between two points on a map, fertile ground for colorful characters to suss out their differences, revelations to be had, and unwitting heroes to face off against a bevy of a ghoulish horrors. The broad expanse of the open spaces between cities is an easy target for an author to aim their thoughts and opinions of the US of A. Musician-turned-novelist J.D. Wilkes’ Southern-fried debut novel, The Vine That Ate The South, a rip-roaring exploration of the power of legend and folklore, fits the bill nicely, if not a bit sloppily. The book finds a nameless, fatherless man-child obsessed with the legends of the South, and his green-toothed, Native American guide, Carver Canute, following the railroad spikes of the abandoned L&N line on a cornbread quest to discover the mythical Kudzu House of legend. The two men’s journey pulls them through the deep, dark of the South, where the titular Kudzu consumes all, women ride Great Danes for sport, albino spirit panthers stalk their prey, and shit-throwing demon men might just be hiding in the trees.
The Vine That Ate The South is, at its best, a page-turning delight, rife with Southern folklore. The ne’er-do-well duo at its heart, legend-seeking miscreants, on a mission to discover their homelands beating heart, and the secrets of their own familial history along the way. The narrator and his salty companion—a veritable encyclopedia of tall tales—are outsiders, pushed away from their past and the present by the onset of modernity. The unnamed narrator seeks more than just the discovery of the truth behind a campfire story, his quest is to become a legend in his own right; to become a part of the criss-crossing grid of myth that flows underneath the rag-tag, poverty-stricken climes of the rural South. In plotting their journey, Wilkes explores the battle between the old gods of story and legend and the all-consuming malaise brought about by technology-obsessed, preservative pounding, present day America. “Trite but true,” the narrator tells the reader, “technology has ostensibly solved most of our problems yet created entirely new ones to take their place.”
Wilkes’s portrayal of the South is chock full of toothless hillbillies, skin-and-bone meth heads and gun-toting isolationists, but the author’s love for his place of birth is clear. His prose is loving and familiar, honest in its depiction, but lacking in judgment or cynicism. These are people and places that Wilkes knows, and his writing makes even shit-tossing loonies seem like beloved, if not avoided, parts of an extended Southern family.
The heart of the novel is the legend of the Kudzu House—a place so consumed by the vine, that its owner’s skeletons still hang above it—and the power of legend itself. Folklore and myth leap off of nearly every page, but Wilkes never reveals if he truly believes any of them, including the Kudzu House, actually exist. Our characters spit stories back and forth, but never come to face-to-face (without the effects of mind-altering substances coursing through their veins) with any of the legends they’re looking for. Instead, Wilkes uses legends and folklore like religion: it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever seen its magic in action, giving yourself over to the belief in it, is just as powerful, just as potent a way of revealing our inner truths.
Wilkes has a lot to say in the short expanse of The Vine That Ate The South about the power of folklore, religion, technology, the relationship between the North and the South and on and on, and with every page seeming to feature an aside to some homespun tale, not everything gets enough room to breath. With Wilkes at the wheel of this rollicking road trip though, it’s easy to ignore the lingering flaws of the book. The deeper the characters push towards their destination, the weirder the book becomes, culminating in a hallucinatory final 60 pages involving talking skeletons, a river witch, the aforementioned albino ghost panther and a possibly possessed, shit-hurling hillbilly. The Vine That Ate The South isn’t—like the gap-toothed, Confederate flag waving South it holds so dear—perfect, but it’s always a good time, occasionally one brimming over with a clapboard type of rustic insight. It’s a Homeric odyssey soaked in chewing tobacco, dropped in a pocket pint of moonshine, and best consumed in one long delirious pull.