Category Archives: Dorothy Allison

71st Discussion: Dorothy Allison—Bastard Out of Carolina

This discussion note is written by Brian (who blogs at Foreign Influence).

Attending: Raj, Alexius, Paul (a first-timer), Sharad, Brian, and Dominic

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Bastard out of Carolina is a difficult book to finish. The Boatwright family in 1950s/1960s Greenville County, South Carolina—kinship, poverty, violence, abuse, humiliation, self medication, criminality, illegitimacy, and constant questions of beauty and ugliness. For some of us, the book was too traumatic to read without multiple breaks. For some, it was overly complicated or unnecessarily melodramatic in places. For others, the pace of the book was distracting: too many leaps or slow lags without a steady narrative. Even after some of us did manage to finish reading, we kept returning to questions of realism, silence, characterization, and the place of this book in American gay culture. The book did lead to some arguments—even about the weather in that part of the Southern United States.

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Brian and Raj very much liked Bastard and the responses it evoked, even though Raj thought characters aged too quickly within the novel’s pace and Brian thought the novel could have developed some racial themes more fully.

Sharad and Dominic were generally positive, although more ambivalent toward the believability of the story and skeptical about the moral of the tale. Dominic summed the book’s message up as “Don’t be poor.” He didn’t like the presentation of that message.

Alexius and Paul didn’t like the book. Alexius thought Bone—the main character—never said or did anything; she never developed as a character. Paul thought the book tried to develop too many themes; it had little emotional depth. He asserted that his standard for gay and lesbian literature is Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and that Bastard did not match up.

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After a long discussion of the poverty and violence in the novel in general, we talked about its portrayal of crime and incarceration. Going to jail makes these men adults, and you can beat someone in a fair fight or out of justified revenge as long as you don’t kill them. We noted that girls become women by having babies and boys become men by committing crimes.

(Bone is close to her Uncle Earle—the only (?) likeable male character in the book—and commits a crime with her cousin Grey. Does this put her between the men and women in the novel, like her Aunt Raylene, who late in the book describes her love for another woman?)

Then, we discussed the theme of fire. Many things and people burn in this book, and fire is always mentioned around Bone’s encounters with other girls she seems drawn toward—such as the Black girl in the apartment and the Albino friend Shannon.

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We also discussed race, skin tone, and hair in relation to questions of being pretty or ugly. Being pretty is a constant obsession in the novel. Everyone worries about it, and it is always related to being fairskinned and blond haired. Brian pointed out that the characters tease any children with curly hair, saying they are “from the wrong side of the family,” and Raj raised this question of the “curse” some children hinted at. Alexius linked this curse to themes of “destiny” in the book—to the idea that there is no way out of the cycles portrayed.

Raj brought up questions of the power of “unconditional love,” of course.

We discussed Anney in detail. Her jobs and economic situations. We discussed her relations with Bone’s unnamed father, her husband Lyle—who dies soon after their marriage—and her second husband Glen, the man-child prone to violent outbursts—who abuses Bone. Anney is a mother, a housewife, a waitress, and a mill worker. Always barely making ends meet. The ambiguity of one of the economic arrangements in the book led us to ask if Anney might have engaged in sex work of one sort or another once.

Considering themes of humiliation and legitimacy, we considered why Anney is so concerned about Bone’s birth certificate—even though no one else appears to be. Sharad thought it was a point of pride. Paul suggested it was a matter of social stigma. Dominic asserted that if being poor was bad, being poor and a bastard was even worse, and Anney wanted to keep Bone from that double humiliation.

We discussed whether or not Shannon’s immolation was a suicide or an accident. Raj and Dominic said, “Yes.” Sharad hedged. Paul said the scene was emblematic of being consumed by religion. Brian thought maybe. Alexius asked, “Who is Shannon?”

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The religious/gospel singing passages were interesting but didn’t garner much of our interest.

It seemed as if the book was introducing many homosocial/homosexual moments involving Bone: Bone’s links to Granny at first, the exchange of looks with the Black girl, Shannon, and then the “queer utopia” (???) of Aunt Raylene’s home. (Raylene who ran away with a woman once and now lives alone is also called “Ray.”) We debated if Raylene might be the moral voice of the novel but could not decide. Brian invested a lot in Raylene’s statement to Bone that, “‘People are the same,’ she said in a whisper. ‘Everybody just does the best they can’” and tried to find some morality in it.

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We asked about the book’s portrayal of straight culture. Paul thought it was stereotypical. Raj thought the story was biased against everyone. No one does well in this environment. Dominic reminded us that Anney and Lyle are a positive couple. But, Lyle dies right away, for no apparent reason. Sharad brought up ideas of toxic masculinity and constant economic dependency. Alexius mumbled something.

In closing, we brought out our favorite characters:

Raj: Granny doesn’t move! There’s stability to parts of this culture.

Dominic: Serving it real! There is so much food in the book, and Anney serves it all.

Sharad: You can’t get more right than the Boatwrights! The whole family is engrossing.

Paul: I didn’t like anyone.

Alexius: I liked the weather.

Brian: Raylene! Who doesn’t want to live alone at a bend in the river?

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Filed under Class, Classics, Dorothy Allison, Family, Lesbian, USA