Journeyman: A Novel
Written with difficulty and poorly received by critics upon release in 1938, 'Journeyman' directly followed Caldwell's two highly successful masterpieces, 'Tobacco Road' and 'God's Little Acre.' While less overtly funny than 'Tobacco Road' and less moving than 'God's Little Acre,' 'Journeyman' remains a small, tightly controlled masterpiece well in keeping with its more famous predecessors, and is no more shocking than either.
A stranger arrives in the hot, sleepy, Georgia agricultural community of Rocky Comfort, driving up to Clay Horey's farm in a dying automobile, the sound of grinding gears and a cloud of billowing black smoke announcing his arrival. Clay, as easily molded and manipulated as his name suggests, isn't sure whether he sees a man emerging from the car or not, and briefly believes he's hallucinating. Buzzards are "soaring motionless overhead," and bluejays sweep from the woods in a flurry "as if they've discovered a snake in a tree." For a moment, the natural laws of the physical world have been suspended and oddly skewed. Clay's visitor is preacher Semon Dye (Semon/Die = Life/Death?), an apparently down on his luck wayfarer in dirty black clothing and a face charred brown from the smoke.
Through the use of blatant but nonetheless effective and smartly executed symbolism, Caldwell makes it quite clear what sort of spiritual being Semon Dye is. He tells Clay he "feels horny," and intimidates Clay into action by jabbing at him repeatedly with a pitchfork. Readers will quickly notice that Semon is the prototype of Harry Powell, the preacher played by Robert Mitchum in the 1955 film 'Night Of The Hunter.' Semon, "about 50" and nothing less than 6 feet 8 inches tall, is also a magnetically sexual predator and personality, using his continuously evident "huge stiff thumb" to stab Clay between the ribs (a metaphorical act of 'sticking it to him,' as he soon will), and attracting women "like flocks of sheep."
"He's the potentest thing," says 15 year-old child bride Dene more than once, to Clay's chagrin.
Semon sets about seducing everyone he meets literally or figuratively, quietly taking over gullible, torpid Clay's farm and life one piece at a time. Even when one male character says he'd "like to blow Semon's brains out," he also admits momentarily that he misses Dye's presence and being "tickled" by both his big stiff thumb and company. One woman, though just violently pistol whipped into unconsciousness by the preacher, nonetheless agrees to travel with him the following week.
But Rocky Comfort is already in a fallen state before Semon arrives. The only local church has been converted into a guano shed; Clay is married to current wife and teenager Dene, but hasn't divorced his previous and fourth wife, Lorene Horey, who appears in town uninvited and who literally acts out her surname by settling happily down to a life of prostitution; Clay's only child, uncontrollable 6 year -old Vearl, is living with a syphilis infection he inexplicably contracted in his fourth year; Lorene, one of the stronger personalities in the book, constantly harasses Clay or Susan to take her son Vearl to a doctor for treatment, but doesn't lift a finger to do so herself; and Clay, though he's had a bottle of medicine for the boy for two years, has yet to give Vearl even a spoonful.
In an original, hilarious, and daring scene, Caldwell has Clay, Semon, and neighbor Tom lightly fighting over and becoming addicted to peeping through a "slit" in the back wall of Tom's cowshed at the barbed wire fence and beautiful, lush woodland stretching beyond it. This slit, "the [word deleted--ed.] little slit I ever saw in all my life," as Tom calls it, presents an opportunity for the characters not only to peer directly into nature's sprawling, all encompassing vulva, but to simultaneously glimpse through it the only pure, untouchable, incorruptible world they'll ever know, that which exists forever beyond the 'barbed wire fence' of their own animal state of lust and gross stupidity.
Passing a neighborly jug of 'corn' whiskey, the three briefly fall into a state of peace and understanding with one another. Even while competing and tricking one another for access to the hole, they spontaneously empathize with each other's need to peer through it again and again. The unfallen, Eden-like natural world they see on the other side, but which is directly perceivable only through the magic slit, is a vision of paradise that briefly unites them. Thus the male gaze meets nature's maw at eye level, with happy results for all.
When Semon clamorously preaches to the community in the local school house at night, his true nature manifests again not only in his rage but in the sudden appearance of the black flies, June bugs, mud daubers, wasps and biting red ants that swarm into the building.
Ostensibly attempting to raise the population spiritually by forcing them to admit and reject their sins and torrid natures, Semon finally reduces the assembly by torchlight to sweating, barely clothed, hysterically orgasmic serpents, slithering on their stomachs, speaking gibberish, and twining themselves around one another and around the desks meant for presumably innocent school children. Only prostitute and sexual sophisticate Lorene, "the biggest sinner" in Semon's eyes, consciously rejects the preacher's spell, sitting in the back of the room in horrified, disgusted, but unconverted astonishment.
'Journeyman' appears to be about man's casual indifference at grasping and preventing the pitfalls of cause and effect, and about his inability to learn the lesson of even his most frightful, painful, and harrowing experiences. Its 'religious' theme was taken too literally at the time of its initial publication; today's readers should beware of making the same mistake, especially because Semon is only a self-appointed and ostensible man of God.
Caldwell's material here, however, remains timeless, and none of the struggle he had in the writing of the book is apparent. Seamless like the best of his work, 'Journeyman' is a pleasurable page turner, coarse and wise by turns.