A Little More Than Kin

Ollie Jordan: "Everybody's got an idiot chained to him, only difference is, mine's here to see."

Ollie Jordan and his clan appear in my first novel, The Dogs of March. The events in A Little More Than Kin (published in 1982) occur a year or so later than those in The Dogs of March. The Jordans live in shacks behind a huge billboard that advertises a Vermont business, Basketville. Ollie is a brooding character with an inquiring philosophical turn of mind, but he grew up with no education, no mentors, and a serious Freudian hangup. A family history of poverty, stubborn pride, and a culture that runs contrary to mainstream society have robbed Ollie and his people of opportunity, even hope. They live by a culture of "succor and ascendancy".

When Ollie is evicted from his shacks he breaks his drinking rules and heads out into the wilderness with his mentally deficient son, Willow, literally chained to him. Father and son are doomed. How that doom plays itself out, through the disturbed but insightful mind of Ollie Jordan, is what makes A Little More Than Kin tick. My goal in this book was to make a rural underclass man a tragic hero. I probably failed in that endeavor, but I gave it my best shot and I do believe that Ollie is a strong and believable fictional character. In Ollie I wanted to create an underclass character who was not stupid, not shallow, not silly.

The book was in part a rebellion against the novel and movie Deliverance, where rural people are portrayed as bestial. My aim wasn't to glorify or romanticize rural people; it was simply to show them as complex human beings. Though A Little More Than Kin is action-packed the book is at heart an exploration into a brilliant mind that has laid waste to itself.

Back in the 1970s anybody driving on I–91, the new interstate highway in Vermont that ran roughly parallel to the Connecticut river boundary with New Hampshire, would notice how beautiful the landscape was, in part because Vermont did not allow billboards. But look at that: a huge sign, tall and very wide, a single word on it, BASKETVILLE, advertising a store in Putney, Vermont. The proprietors got away with the billboard by placing their sign across the river in New Hampshire, which had no legal prejudice against billboards.

Every time I drove the highway, especially at night, I would look for the sign. There was something about it, perhaps the incongruity of a lit-up billboard seeming to come out of the forest, that gave me a little thrill, folloowed by an twinge of shame for feeling so giddy about a blight on the landscape. One afternoon I was driving south on the highway to New York. Somewhere in Massachusetts–in Easthamption, I think–something caught my attention. High above on the edge of a cliff stood a naked man in all his male splendor facing the traffic. I projected the mental picture of that guy to the top of the Basketville sign.

Probably Willow Jordan, Ollie's eldest son, standing on the ridge board of the Basketville sign naked facing the traffic on 91 is the most vivid image in A Little More Than Kin, maybe in all the Darby books. To that naked guy going solo on a cliff top, I say, "Thanks for the image, friend."

In A Little More Than Kin, behind the Basketville sign, unseen from the highway, are the Jordan shacks. My inspiration for the Jordan shacks came about as a result of a newspaper ad I answered advertising a 10-foot aluminum johnboat with oars for $75. The time period was the 1970s. I called the number in the ad, and a man with a weak voice gave me directions to his place, ten or so miles from Keene. It turned out be a two-room shack in a compound of half a dozen or more shacks on a country road. There was a lot of junk laying around amid briers, rocks, random vegetable plants but no discernible garden, plenty of weeds and weed trees, though; patches of tall grass and a wild flower or two, but no lawn, nor evidence there had ever been one. To me this layout was beautiful.

It was obvious from the look of the owner why he wanted to sell. The man was a walking scarecrow. He told me he had cancer and was too weak to fish; indeed, he could barely get around and converse. I knew I could talk him down on the price, but I paid the $75 anyway. Out of pity? Well, a little, but mainly I just don't like to haggle.

Later when I was writing the first two books of the Darby Chronicles–"dogs" and "kin"–I put those shacks and "landscaping" in back of my version of the Basketville sign. I also put something of the former boat owner into the physique of Ollie Jordan when Ollie is deteriorating from alcoholism and growing madness.

Ollie and his clan are squatting on the property of an absentee landlord. Eventually, the sign is torn down, the shacks demolished, until there is nothing left but bare ground. In later Darby novels, a trailer park springs up in the vicinity. By the end of the Darby Chronicles, the trailer park too has vanished from the earth as if it had never existed. That's how it goes with the dwellings of the poor. We remember the rich and the privileged, their castles, their walled cities, their pyramids, their great cathedrals, their sarcophagi, the documentation of the structures left by architects, artists, and historians for us to study and admire. By contrast the poor live in fragile and short-lived structures. The poor are not interred in vaults that last over the millennia; they do not live in stone castles, mansions, or penthouses in the big city. They leave very few paper trails. They are like the creatures of the wilds that build nests to raise young and to seek shelter, only to be dispossessed by fickle weather, a landlord with a different idea, or the demands of their own wandering spirit.

When I published The Dogs of March, I sold the johnboat; with part of the $4,000 advance for the book I bought a canoe. As it turned out that purchase was a mistake. For my purposes, fishing on small ponds with a fly rod, the johnboat was superior, easier to toss into the bed of my pickup, and it handled better in wind than the canoe. Plus too much time in the canoe using, no doubt, poor paddle-technique gave me tendinitis in my right elbow. I never had elbow problems pulling oars. Only thing I didn't like about rowing was having to look over my shoulder to see where I was going.