Isn’t it great to hit on an unusual title? Forget the best seller lists. You browse around and there it is. You don’t have a clue what the book is about, and you have to know more. What the heck can The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart be about? Then it’s the first paragraph or page, in this case the Prologue. How do you resist this?
“…the old man sewed his mouth shut with saltwater-rated fishing line. The sores and the throbbing were back. It was his 108th birthday … He’d left a small, pinto bean-sized hole unsewn … ”
Early Taggart, known for most of his life as Trenchmouth, between the necessary aliases, is one of the most fascinating fiction characters I’ve read. The story is filled with ugliness, pain, and sorrow, yet the man –– eventually an outlaw –– is likeable. You cheer for him.
He survives in the rugged coal country of West Virginia. As a boy and man he is invisible, even to those who know him well. His proclivities are too difficult to deal with. His tenacious spirit (not always admirable) carries him through a life of one decision after the other begging a moral response, and when the moral response is discarded as unworkable, you continue to cheer.
Early Taggart’s crazed mother took him to a dirty West Virginia river when he was two months old and weighing twelve pounds. She intended to baptize him. Broke through inch-thick February river ice, held him by his plump thighs and dumped his head into the chill. He rose up and spooked her. She dropped him and set him free. He rode the current under the ice to the rest of his strange, tormented, and wildly inventive life.
The Widow Dorsett plucked him from the river and as he grew, she trusted him with her “miraculous” moonshine, of such quality it had no equal. The moonshine comforted little Taggart’s aliment and becomes his closest and dearest companion. He skittered like an animal and had an animal’s instinct for survival. His eyesight was peculiarly keen. He dug, crawled, climbed and hid things. He has a way with snakes. These talents are needed throughout his life. Over the years and off and on, beginning at a young age, he lived in a cave where women visited him for another unique talent.
The Widow taught him to read, to think critically, to shoot, and to “live right.” He didn’t live up to the admonishments of right living, but never forgot them. He wrote stories of what he knew using a raccoon’s penis bone for a pen. Sometime the bone was a needle. He traveled light but always had his briefcase filled with newspaper clippings –– and his collection of pens and needles. During the Chicago days he toted his “seven harmonicas, two flasks, a lockbox filled with newspaper clippings…and hair tonic.”
His cruelly-afflicted trenchmounth blew a harmonica so soulful I swear I could hear it.
The voice, the whole sound was smoke-shot vocal chords and sticky-floor toe-tapping, holes in the soles. Chicky played part of the song with his nose. It was holy hell blues all right, and the only country or gospel to be heard was not a brand greasy Jimmy the disc jockey had ever encountered. This was sin music…
…Chicky [Trenchmouth] let loose a solo. He bent notes hard and laid on the vibratio. Tongue-blocking it like nobody else could, he stood, rocking at the waist like a metronome.
Taggart reinvented himself with purpose as the need arose. He was known as Chicky Gold and A.C. (Ace) Gilbert at times. He became a newspaper man, for a while, for the West Virginia Hillbilly. Dorthea taught him to type. Writing came natural.
He mourned for the coal miners, their lives, and the lives of their families. He did something big about it, and the ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart was born:
The crowd listened to the words, stood still. Louise sang holier than Hazel Dickens
Miners stayed poor loading that coal
Till Trenchmouth Taggart come to save their soul
He stood hs ground and took his stand
An eye for an eye with that green-fisted man.
A few rows from the stage, Ace nodded a thank you to Louise, daughter of his first and only love.
Now he is a centinarian, living back in Widow Dorsett’s house:
The old man read the letters with a joy and sorrow more palpable than any he’d ever felt reading newspaper stories. Afterwards, he rested. …all those letters to him in secret. … He matched his own to hers and nearly let the music of such breathing lull him into the sleep of the dead.
He sat upright instead. Then he did his push-ups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks. He decided to live a while longer, to go into town every now and again, procure things like chipped beef and Chesterfields. He decided he’d no longer speak. The rotten hole in his head between his nose and his chin no longer had words to utter.
Before I bought the book, I read a couple of reviews that compared Trenchmouth Taggart to Forest Gump. No. I see nothing Forest Gump-ish about Taggart. If I could think of a comparison, I’d give it to you.
The Ballard of Trenchmouth Taggart is M. Glenn Taylor’s debut book. He’s a West Virginia boy, and his voice is authentic. The book is classified Fiction. It deserves Literary Fiction, all 290 pages of it. It’s listed among my 5 Star Reads. Paperback is $12.47, Kindle $10.39
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