Roger Pinckney presents a pluff mud-soaked panther quest
Washed in the Blood
By Roger Pinckney
Hardback 144 pp.
(Evening Post Books, Charleston, 2021)
By Charles W. Waring III
Liquored-up lads on a Bertram 31’s transom were the first to speculate that Roger Pinckney XI would place a puma right in the center of his latest novel, Washed in the Blood — at least that is the palmetto pulse from our spy in an undisclosed marina near Beaufort. Like the puma of the novel, Cousin Roger is a rare cat and mysterious to those, especially from off, who don’t know this living legend of Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. Our writer knows his Lowcountry in a manner so well that his book achieves the sparsely used word known as verisimilitude, a ten-dollar vessel of vocabulary that fits a tale possessing the pace of a panther on the hunt: slowly observing from a distance, then creeping up to get close to its prey and finally rushing in for the kill.
Our protagonist, William Rutledge “Rut” Elliott IV, is a familiar type of Lowcountry character who fell out of a Jimmy Buffett song long before he enthusiastically became at one with the rice fields, creeks, rivers and spartina grass of our lower Lowcountry. Perhaps, he was a regular at Charleston’s erstwhile Captain Harry’s Blue Marlin Bar in 1978, became annoyed about Spoleto traffic and moved to Beaufort and started sipping with the author; stranger things have happened.
Named after two of the Lowcountry’s most impactful outdoor writers, Rut is no family name dropper; rather, his interests involve enjoying life and a little pot-growing business that takes care of his simple needs. He’s not a “needle and the damage done” kind of guy, but he’ll meet Willie Nelson nightly on the whiskey river. Now and then, he might do enough marine contract work to look like a legitimate waterman. As per the book title, Rut is influenced by his Christian upbringing, but he does not put himself up to be a role model; however, the echoes from sermons, Gullah spirituals and Bible verses flow like tidal creeks throughout the novel. Be prepared for the shifting sands of belief because Rut’s sincerity of faith can seem irritatingly shallow at times or at least muddy in its manifestation.
In many respects, he is a gem of a guy, as he is all in for conservation and has his hunting and fishing plans in the right priority. However, Rut romances like a cross between a fraternity boy and a caveman, which might make him obnoxious to some readers; as much as his style may not be yours, his choices and surroundings are real ones. Try walking a little in his “McClellanville wing-tips” or shrimper boots; test drive this type of “Bubba” fairly because you would dismiss Rut at your own peril. There is a complex piece of a changing Lowcountry citizenry reflected in this character and his commentary. Our author gives you Rut’s worldview without the perspective of Victorian curtains or the old key that kept your children from viewing HBO back in the 70s. In short, it is a book for conservation-minded adults ready to accept a few R-rated events.
Be prepared to see Rut in the quiet natural places that ooze gorgeous whispers, but you need to layer in the intrigue of the puma mystery, what the DNR thinks about it all, how things work out with sexy Officer Callahan and how Rut will close the deal. This friendly river rat meanders through his mission with a relaxed style that gives him a powerful and convincing platform to expose the homogenization and hyper growth of the lower coast.
It is reflexive for many to criticize overdevelopment but it is far more difficult task to give you the flavor of modern Beaufort after a few decades of blockbuster movies, high-strung new arrivals and a cast net full of “progress.” “The grand old mansions of the cotton barons remained, most new bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels for the tourist trade, and the whole of downtown was devoted to discretionary spending, not a God’s thing a man actually needed.” Many parts of Charleston echo throughout what thematically is a Southern antidote to the times in which we live.
Those thirsting for something well outside of the PC world will wish to drink deeply from Roger’s 16 chapters that keep you ready for more as you dive deeper. Meanwhile, the author provides more than a taste of Gullah along the way. He does not give too many lengthy Gullah descriptions, which is probably wise considering the lack of Gullah speakers in his readership. Nonetheless, he missed an opportunity to quote from the spiritual called the “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which originates from Pocotaligo and says, “Een dah Blood pit ’e maa’k on me.” Maybe such perfectly matched music will find its way into the needed sequel, but this is more of suggestion between two friendly gun writers talking about the merits of an L. C. Smith v. a Parker in front of a mellow fire.
The author is fearless in an age of high-octane, edgy behavior regarding social issues, especially when it comes to race. “Smoke rolled, music blared and the air was alive with laughter and the great Gullah tongue, as liquid as the flood tide gurgling over an oyster bank,” he writes. The author boldly tells how Rut walks into a Juneteenth celebration with his lady friend and is warmly accepted by his black friends.
It is not by happenstance that the novel reads in the special way it does, so credit the editor(s) for not carving up the topic and grammar into the “right” phrases. Roger gives you stream of consciousness and a Southern man’s unwavering directness as told from a beat-up tailgate with a bourbon in hand. Here Rut thinks about where he grew up: “The dead speak better when the magnolias bloom on a hot night with no breeze when the scent makes you dizzy and you swear you could cut the air with a dull skinning knife.” This is no Herbert Ravenel Sass dream sequence but a brilliant flash of memory taken from a hot pulse.
This reviewer will dare not tell you what happens with the pretty girlfriend and the mysterious panther because you will want to learn about all of this in good time as you slowly digest the book. The author’s unique voice is what keeps you returning like a big cat to its kill. Readers will see a variety of influences; Robert Ruark and Ernest Hemingway are friendly inspirations.
He swerves into characterizing Rut as being like the “King of Sweden,” which could be a genetic writing trait, if you want to go as far back to trace kinship to Charleston Renaissance author Josephine Pinckney and reference her poem “An Island Boy” in which Mikell is as “proud as the King of Spain.” Reread this poem to see similar character traits of Rut and Mikell. Enjoying such a coincidence could only happen in the great “cousinage” of S.C.
Washed in the Blood has literary flavors that are suited for more than just kinfolk; it is a heaping slice of a real Southern persona at a time when readers do not expect a novel willing to challenge academia’s pretentions and cancellation politics. Order your copy of Roger Pinckney’s book for your library or as a gift for someone who will appreciate a beach read best enjoyed with an adult beverage in the salty air.