TEXT review

A South of the mind

review by Jane Browning


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Dallas Angguish
America Divine: Travels in the Hidden South
Phosphor Books 2011
ISBN 9781466371408
Pb 218pp USD11.99


During truancy from an all-boys Catholic school, a reclusive Dallas Angguish spent mornings watching the local Toowoomba television station’s reruns of black and white films set in the American Deep South. Later, the works of Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams became part of his ‘life-long fascination’ (x) with the region and its depictions.

The South that Angguish writes about in America Divine: Travels in the Hidden South is ‘a landscape that exists beyond the physical boundaries of the Southern states’ (ix). It is ‘a South of the mind, a metaphorical South’ (ix). The result is a collection of travel tales that are set in a poetic, yet realistic landscape, and which convey Angguish’s humorous, self-deprecating and intimate reflections of the South.

‘The Raptors’ is the most personal of the tales, and is located near the end of the volume.  After a nasty confrontation with ‘two crazed owls’ (141) behind the counter in a bookshop, Angguish seeks comfort in a bottle of bourbon and the bosom of his landlady, a kind-hearted woman in a state of ‘reckless dishevelment’ (138) who reminds him of his mother:

In the moment, my catharsis evoking hers, she mistakes me for her son. She purrs, “There, there honey… momma forgives you.” My heart trembles, like an autumn leaf right before its slow and glorious fall to the earth, and then takes up a slow and even beat.’ (148)

For the most part Angguish is willing to see the best in the South’s characters, and is a sensitive medium for their distinctive voices.  He is wary of some. Such is the case in ‘Cemetery’ where amongst the ‘neo-classical crypts that look like scaled down mansions’ (26), Angguish avoids a tour group and being ‘caught up in the whirlpool of their sightseeing’ (28). He is lured under the shadows of a giant tree by a young African-American man coated with dust from construction work, giving him the ‘appearance of an ancient warrior’ (29), but in the end he resists the man’s request to stroke his white skin. With other characters he’s less cautious: the deceptively benign Cody in ‘Vieux Carré Awesome Voodoo and Mutual Pleasure Society’; and the death-driving incarnation of Jimmy Dean in ‘Ellen “Jimmy” Dean’.

Angguish insists he’s a ‘zealous skeptic’ (38), a description he wields as a talisman during his travels in the South. His ‘anxiety about the strange’ and his ‘(rather intense) fear of death’ are ‘doorways through which that world of phantoms and magic might enter and take hold’ (52). Where in America Divine the superstitious seek graveyard dirt, dust ground from cemetery bricks, or voodoo paraphernalia, Angguish desires the ‘even breath’ (52) of objectivity. Under the spell of research he seeks out the tale’s namesake Dalanchise Delacroix, a ten year old famed for her readings. As soon as he arrives she has his measure: ‘“Don’t be getting’ off your little scooter,” she shouted …‘I aint got nothin’ to tell you” (54-55). Angguish is not yet ‘ripe’ (56).

In the act of pursuing or evading certain characters, Angguish takes in their landscape. In ‘John of the River Reed Cross’ his increasing perambulations are to shun a towering street evangelist whose roving intercepts Angguish in whatever approach he makes to his favourite lunch venue. The detours foster an appreciation of Savannah architecture ‘that sends a certain type of traveler – middle-aged, middle-class, middle-American – into a white-sneakered frenzy’ (112-113). He ends up being invited into a Regency style mansion to tour its fixtures by its elegantly drunk owner.

The book has twelve tales arranged in three parts. ‘Heaven Come Down’ is the sole tale of Part Three, and the longest of the volume. Here Angguish arrives in Homeland, southern Georgia, finding it to be ‘a veritable nest of rednecks of the mud and blood type, all of whom seemed to eye [him] as though [he] was a brain-damaged deer that had wandered unknowingly onto a rifle range in the middle of hunting season’ (157). The town, however, is a gateway to Okefenokee Swamp, and Angguish’s impromptu tour guide is Isaac, ‘an Adonis in the swamp’ (151) compared to Angguish’s expectation of Swampers to be ‘toothless inbreeds with three nipples’ or ‘parasitic twins peering out from between the zippers of mud and blood smeared hunting jackets’ (157).

Spanish moss delicately wreaths most of the tales. While driving to Okefenokee Swamp with Isaac, it ‘formed a kind of continuous veil through which [they] coasted’ (177). Swamp vegetation in this tale is pervasive: water lilies, lichen, and the meat-eaters, ‘red-veined pitcher plants and sticky, cherry-colored Sundews’ (154).

Then there’s the Swamp Cyprus forests that stand in shallow pools of black water, draped in long tendrils of Spanish Moss. They’re like clusters of petrified mummies knee-deep in oil, ghostly and stately at the same time; their reflection on the still water like a mirror into the cave-like burial mounds of long-dead Mississippian Indian kings (155).

The mention of the long-dead Indian King recalls the first tale in America Divine, ‘Shallow Water, Oh Mamma’, where a psychologist interloping in post-Katrina New Orleans tries to assign a cause to her patient’s possession by a phantasmal Indian King and is in turn possessed. Angguish only makes a cursory appearance in this story: he spies the psychologist on a street corner, appearing to be ‘just another crazy person among the many who haunted the streets of the French Quarter’ (22). The Indian King’s tentative refrain in the last tale is a reminder of the South’s history, and works as a warning about trying to simplify others’ states of mind or motivations.

In ‘Heaven Come Down’ Angguish is present when Isaac plans for his childhood friend Billy to have ‘some sexual healing’ (198). While initially surprised by the circuitous and religious nature of their intended assignation, Angguish takes on a gentle wisdom, looking over the side of the boat, pretending not to listen.

This tale exquisitely intertwines extracts from Flaubert’s The Legend of Saint-Julian, the curse of the swamp witch Black Hattie, and the mutual desiring of Isaac and Billy. This is the most sophisticated example of Angguish’s poetic structuring of the themes in America Divine.

Seven of the tales also appear in Angguish’s first collection, Anywhere But Here. They have been developed and work more satisfyingly in this volume dedicated purely to the South. It’s voluptuous and haunting aesthetic is ideal for the tales’ study of otherness, gender and sexuality. The South of Angguish’s mind is a darkly funny and enchanting place to visit.


Jane Browning is currently undertaking a PhD at Griffith University.


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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo