The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart by M. Glenn Taylor
(Ecco Books, 2009. 288 pp. $13.99 paper.)
‘We have no need for genius– genius is dead.’
Tropic of Cancer
What does one do as a proud parent when one of their own recreates the American novel by adding a sympathetically lilting voice to a subtle, poetic polemic against the travesties of coal mining and the duplicitous nature of the things that define us as a people and a culture? Oh! and along the way, the child earns a coveted nomination as a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Award and named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. You celebrate it. You scream it from the mountaintops that avoided the strip mining of the coal industry. You stand up to Henry Miller and say: “Mr. Miller, genius is no longer dead; it’s reborn in M. Glenn Taylor.” The Texas State University MFA of Creative Writing Program, today, is the proud parent of such a unique and singular talent that already has the literary world abuzz, and the critics in search of a equally or greater sophomore effort from Mr. M. Glenn Taylor. Remember the name, Taylor is well on his way to the next best thing, and he’s one of ours.
If Forrest Gump were to have a prequel equal to or greater than its original scope, Taylor’s The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart is the book. Where Forrest was a crippled boy gone good by the loving and doting nature of a mother and the redeeming faith that ignorance is bliss, Taggart (AKA: Stinky T, Chicky Gold, A.C. Gilbert, and Ace) highlights the strength, love, and power of the human race and the benefits of education and calculation. Where Gump accentuates the latter half of the twentieth-century, and arguably the decline of America’s moral and economic climb, Trenchmouth’s Ballad covers the rise of West Virginia through the early twentieth-century and the moral growth of a boy against the backdrop of a culture defined by the coal industry.
Taggart’s own mother, clinically insane by way of postpartum psychosis, abandons him for dead in the cold, gray, steely winter waters of a West Virginia mountain stream. The attempted drowning in the black, coal polluted waters of the stream inflicted the child with the oral affliction that harbored his first name, Trenchmouth. Feeling for the wailing and wayward child, the Widow Taggart takes him in and raises him with the orphan Clarissa. The Widow Taggart has an iron grasp on how a boy child should be reared, and she encourages and instills in Trenchmouth a desire for reading and writing, specifically a taste for newspaper writing. Although her parenting skills are questionable, Trenchmouth, raised by a moonshiner, develops a taste for the West Virginia shine early, while still in the crib in fact. The widow’s utmost desire and noble intentions are to witness Taggart succeed and become a contributing member to society.
As Forrest tripped his way heartwarmingly through life from episode to Quixotic episode, Trenchmouth, a moonshiner by birth, finds himself a hired gun for the coal mining union, a skilled and gifted cunnilinguist, a West Virginia Mountain-man, a music defining harmonica player jamming alongside the likes of Chuck Berry, a president-interviewing, Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper columnist, and the face man for a movement against coal mining interests. The multi-aliased man of many talents, Trenchmouth, although on the run for his crack shot proficiency in the Battle of Matewan, maintains the high moral standard instilled in him by the Widow Taggart throughout his life. Always the underdog, Trenchmouth stands up for those with even smaller voices other than his own. From the colic screaming baby Zizi to the melancholic son of a college professor and the grown Zizi, Taggart proves himself the silent and selfless hero by soothing and saving those he admires and loves from the pain that has haunted him since the trench mouth first afflicted his rotting and cracked gums.
On a deeper level, the beauty of The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart lies in the subtle polemic Taylor induces against the horrors of Big Coal. Born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, Taylor’s writing reflects the cultural hold the coal industry threatens over West Virginians and their desires to shrug of the capitalistic necessity of powering a nation. In microcosm, Trenchmouth may very well reflect the entire populous of West Virginia that has lost someone, something, or suffers ails brought on by a life surrounded and inundated by the ‘other’ black gold. Furthermore, Trenchmouth may represent the state herself robbed of her glorious beauty and independence and forced to run from herself and sacrifice her beauty for such an ugly cost such as powering a nation and lining the pockets of those interested in using her much as Trenchmouth is used throughout the novel.
In Taylor’s most piquant anti-coal whispered rant, Trenchmouth returns home after years on the run to a ran-down hillbilly home much smaller than he remembers. Where the coal companies had strip mined the mountainside and left the summit bare to re-grow with grass non-indigenous to the rolling mountains landscape, a pile of crashed and discarded cars pock the barren mountainside. With tears in Trenchmouth’s eyes, he is informed most of the mining “they’re doing up thisaway” is underground. The folks informing him are environmental activists trying to stop the atrocities of coal mining, and they implore on Taggart they “can get some legislation passed, [get] some folks fired up.” Taggart, still lamenting “The way we used to live,” has lost faith in people getting “fired up” to fight the coal companies anymore. Taggart suffers this in the face of his running for years from his first armed battle against Big Coal. Taggart sighs, “Everybody’s got a price. Everybody gets bamboozled” (241).
Taylor delivers this all with a verve and narrative style that is reminiscent of John Irving’s New England and Abbey’s environmentalism. Like them, Taylor embraces his culture, environment, and everyman’s voice, and he delivers an out-of-nowhere sucker punch to the old medulla oblongata. To read The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, put on some Alison Krauss or the Waller Family in the background, pour yourself some Boysenberry Moonshine, or turpentine if your west of the Blueridge, sit back, and devour a delicious little read.