J.D. Wilkes Puts the American South's Contradictions Up for Reconsideration

A novel that believes monsters are “as much a part of us as our penchant for fried chicken and turnip greens.”

The Vine That Ate the South

Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Length: 218 pages
Author: J.D. Wilkes
Price: $15.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-04

“Best way to plant Kudzu? Hold it out, drop it and run.” It’s probably one of the oldest jokes in the American South. After all, no one who has ever experienced kudzu would even contemplate planting it. It’s also the first line of dialogue in The Vine That Ate the South, a novel by author and musician J.D. Wilkes. Indeed, Kudzu is at the center of this mythic and mysterious tale that opens with our narrator making plans to find an elderly couple who had reportedly been swallowed whole by it.

To say that the narrator is colorful is an understatement. To say he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator is also probably an understatement. He describes his forthcoming journey as his “first and last childhood adventure” -- even though he's in his 30s and tells his readers, “Understand, much of my actual childhood was spent in a state of arrested development inside a fatherless home. I typically stayed out of the sun, alone in the woods or indoors reading books. I loved anything having to do with Greek mythology, philosophy, the classics, or the Bible. Alas, I am now the type of guy who says ‘alas’.”

His search takes him into the most rural parts of Kentucky and is prompted by the most epic of causes: true love. He hopes that his journey will help him win the heart of Delilah Vessels, with whom he lost his virginity and with whom he more recently shared a DQ Blizzard. He's joined by “expert guide and kindred spirit” Carver Canute. Together they head into a haunted forest in a “forgotten corner” of Western Kentucky.

From here, it becomes the wildest of rides, where concepts like time seem simply to vanish and where we never know what our adventurers will encounter next or when the narrator will choose to flash back and reveal another bit of his past. The narrator’s flashbacks relate primarily to his family. His mother makes regular appearances, but most of the flashbacks focus on the narrator’s father, who dies when the narrator is quite young and whose last words to his son are “SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET YER ASS TO SLEEP.”

In present day and in the forests of western Kentucky, Carver and the narrator meet a set of equally colorful characters. Some are human but others are not (and some perhaps are halfway in between). There are giants, water serpents, sin eaters, a sad (and abused) buzzard (who perhaps someone ironically ends up being a bit of a hero at the end of the story), and the Bell Witch -- a very famous demon from Tennessee. Demons and monsters, our narrator explains, are “as much a part of us as our penchant for fried chicken and turnip greens.”

The idea of what it means to be Southern is as much a part of this book as the search for the couple consumed by kudzu. The American South is a tricky thing. Perhaps more so than any other region of the United States, it’s stereotyped, ignored, branded, rebranded, labeled and ridiculed. In reality, the American South is, as the back of the book states, full of contradictions, and The Vine That Ate the South puts many of those contradictions front and center -- through the setting, the various characters and perhaps most clearly through the narrator, who often seems to be a walking contradiction.

With lines like “Trite but true: technology has ostensibly solved most of our problems yet created entirely new ones to take their place” the narrator is, at times, practical and logical. Sometimes -- for example, when he comments that everyone knows cicadas hum in the key of C# -- he’s hard to take seriously. Other times, he passes by quirky and moves to just downright odd (but strangely enough in a logical sort of way), such as when he hopes that God is “kind of a dumbass. With coke-bottle glasses, mismatched socks, and maybe his fly open. Because how can you stay mad at that?” At other times, he seems almost a throwback to another age with his gentle reader references: “I ask you, gentle reader. No, I beg you! What is it with plastic mannequins and visionaries of the American South?”

Some of the narrator’s contradictions and eccentricities are distinctly Southern, but others are more universal. Toward the end of the novel, he relates with elegant simplicity, “I always thought that growing old and dying was one of the coolest things I’d ever get to do.”

The narrator also voices thoughts on race, family, poverty and obesity. His commentary along with Wilkes’ ability to spin a story and craft language that's as inventive and clever as the book’s plot combine to create something special that's a bit of a contradiction itself -- a book that feels both classic and new, mythic and modern.







Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.