White Trash and the American Experience
A People Seldom Seen
June 19, 2011
Tell you what: them as has interest in Americana would like this documentary. If you want an expedition into the bottom layers of the American social experiment, down where even catfish won't feed and everything you think is good isn't there, try The Wild Wild and Wonderfu Whites of West Virginia—Boone County to be exact. Here you have a well-done account of a dying breed, Appalachian white trash, at its finest. (In the title, “White” is a family name, like Reed, not a racial designation.)
It resonates with me somehow. I was born in Crumpler, an unincorporated coal camp up the holler from North Fork, in McDowell County, but McDowell and Boone are the same place, or were—ugly poor, beaten down by ruthless coal companies that don't care about anybody or anything, awful schools, no future, black lung, men crushed by slate falls. It's better now than it was, though. Some better.
The life of the mines and mountains bred strange people, like Jesco White the Dancing Outlaw, Jesco being an Elvis look-alike and probable psychopath, and Deeray White and Sue Bob and Darky, people your mother wouldn't want you to play with because they play with guns and knives and Xanax, coke, and Oxycontin. Some sniff gasoline, which even in the Sixties would have been thought excessive.
White trash was a whole, grett big, motingator part of America, and still is more than most people imagine. Most people that read things on computers, anyway. The history books talk about the virtuous and largely imaginary Boy Scouts, the Kit Carsons and Tom Jeffersons and a sea of rude but hardy and decent pioneers, courageous and independent saints who made this country from scratch. Sure, and I'm the Tooth Fairy. The people who believe this haven't been down the dirt roads to the thirty-year-old trailer with the broken washing machine in the yard and Bobby Ann, sixteen and pregnant, slouched on the steps in dirty shorts.
The truth was a bit different from what the high schools tell you. There were lots of mean, shiftless sonsofbitches, colorful God knows, who stayed drunk on busthead and beat each other into cripples or knifed or shot, and didn't think anything of it really. You don't know what trouble is till you've been in the wrong pool hall in some forlorn mountain town and the locals look for an excuse to beat you half to death with a pool stick. They don't need much excuse.
White trash made up a lot of the Confederate Army, collard-green poor from the pine barrens. You still see them, the crackers of Florida, the residual bad seed n Appalachia. They live on welfare, thievery, a little armed robbery. The women run to fat, the men often lean and savage. The gals will knife you as quick as the men. Don't ever lean on these folk, unless you've got serious insurance.
Those are the Whites of Boone County, exactly. They are hard people from hard lives and they have hard faces that would scare the bejesus out of decent people without having to say a thing. They don't fear the law because they are used to jail. You might call them pathetic from a distance, but you wouldn't do it to their faces. Not more than once.
Not too many of them are left, and that's a good thing.
In the film you have Jesco holding a knife to his wife's throat and telling her that if she don't stop cooking him those sloppy, slimy eggs he'll slit her. There's the woman who slashed a man's hand in a dispute and then, thinking that he was a big sucker and it might not go well if he got hold of her, stabbed him for real. They are slow-talking, heavy on drugs, sometimes seeming brain-damaged, in and out of jail.
Yet they are not inhuman. There is an insidious appeal to these lying, fat, promiscuous, drug-befoggged outcasts, an attraction that few might admit to but—it exists. They are trapped, but their trap is different from those of most of us. If you go every live-long day to a meaningless job in a federal-wall green cubicle, if you are bored at home, afraid of the boss, a prisoner of the retirement plan, crippled by the mortgage on a house you don't really like, over-regulated—then you could feel a sneaking envy of these raffish pariahs who say “Screw you and your goddam regulations. Put'em where the sun don't shine. We're gonna party.”
You wouldn't want to be one of them. They live in shacks, don't read and maybe barely can, and ain't what most of us would want to be—at least, not reglar.
But...but...a big cooler full of cold ones in a bedraggled clearin, outside someone's old trailer, no cops, no laws, no rules, a couple of pickups gunning it and sliding around in the yard and everybody whooping and carrying on and you can tap a kidney against a tree because nobody gives a damn....
Mostly I guess they are fairly miserable. Leastways the ones I've known could distinguish between McDowell and paradise. But at least they're miserable on their own terms, and I'm not sure they are any more miserable than the rest of us.
You can't romanticize white trash. Not really. So if one day you see this film, call it free-lance anthropology. But watch the Whites in a roadhouse that nobody respectable would ever go to with country music blowing the shingles off and the women dancing dirty but nobody cares. Wild and crazy and everybody knows everybody and you can forget that somebody you knew just got fifty years for attempted murder.
There's music in them, the raw country sound that has been mellowed out and domesticated by Nashville, and a curious mountain ethos that I can feel better than describe. Jesco's backwoods dancing is worth the price of admission by itself.
The Whites don't represent West Virginia as it is today. They're in it, and it's in them, but while much of the state is still poor, its people are generally decent. Bluefield is both safer and friendlier than Washington. Charleston a year ago when I was there with Joe Bageant was delightful. Crumpler sleeps on, good-natured, not changing much. My grandfather's egg-yolk yellow house is still next to the country store at the top of the hill. But if you are a history reader, and want to know how things were in the days of Devil Anse Hatfield and Ran'all McCoy, and still are in pockets, Wild an Wonderful is right on the money.