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The Great Not-So-South: Dixie by William S. Messier

Posted by Caitlin / December 15, 2013

dixie.jpgDixie, William S. Messier's third novel published by Marchand de feuilles, is at once hard to read and completely engrossing. Messier moves between gory descriptions of decaying dead animals and the tragic melancholy of the ghosts that haunt the isolated land of the author's childhood: the Eastern Townships. As this also being where I grew up, I can say that the juxtaposition of poetics and grit the author constructs creates a surreal yet surprisingly resonant portrait of the area.

The raunchiness of the writing illuminates weird and eerie elements of a closed community and suggests that a lot must be going on under the surface, like something rotting from the inside out. When an American criminal escapes and is found by the inhabitants of Le Rang Dutch, their main instinct as they wait for the cops to arrive is to observe him in fascination as they pass food around. When someone offers him vegetables and dip, the most basic of communal acts, he refuses, preferring to remain an outsider than be a part of this group.

I call this book hard to read only because I can be squeamish. After the veggies have gone around, the fugitive gets into a brutal fight with an aggressive local teenager who obviously gets his face smashed in bloody detail as his friends and family watch, not making much of an effort to stop the violence. If those people offered me a snack, I might refuse it too.

However, the purpose for a lot of this rawness quickly becomes obvious. Early on, one of the most important threads that emerges in the story is death. Whether it is of nature, animals or people, it festers everywhere in these pages, connected by an odd and displacing blurred temporality.

While the story takes place in the early 1990s, all of the children of "Le Rang Dutch" have turn-of-the-century-sounding names. As those were the years when I went to elementary school there, I can guarantee that there were many more Émilies, Catherines, Alexandres and Simons than the Dorothées, Gervais, Eucharistes and Hervés we meet in Dixie.

The small cultural lapse points to the malleability of time and place. This manipulation of reality becomes one of the novel's focal concerns as Messier illustrates the porousness of set human concepts such as national borders. Sitting quietly along a man-made line of cut-down trees, that strip of land along the Quebec-Vermont border has some of its deep dark secrets brought to light through a surprisingly high variety of voices for a 160 page novel.

The secrets are whispered through the voices of ghosts, a style reminiscent of the literature of the Great South. Interestingly, Dixie is a perfectly appropriate title for a story that takes place in southeastern Quebec. It bears the name of the American north-south divider, another invisible man-made line. In a way, Messier makes the Mason-Dixon line (the divider of the north and south - or Dixieland- and free states and slave states) and the Canada-US border one and the same with the great music and human horrors of the south seeping up into Quebec.

There are hints at stories of slavery accompanied by banjo music. Ghosts of those who were wronged walk in a funeral procession along with the living. Crime mixes in with the glory of 90s American game shows. All elements come together, beautiful and disgusting, cruel and funny, trashy and tragic, to create a sensory experience that made me nostalgic for a past that is and isn't my own.william.jpg

Published in French by Marchand de feuilles
158 Pages



Daniel Grenier / December 16, 2013 at 06:27 am
Super recension, Caitlin! C'est vraiment beau ce que tu écris sur Dixie, j'y retrouve l'essentiel de la lecture que j'en ai faite et bien plus: ça donne envie de le relire!
Caitlin / December 16, 2013 at 08:43 am
Merci beaucoup, Daniel! J'ai vraiment aimé cette lecture.
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I've heard these stories of slavery accompanied by banjo music is quite overwhelming and surprising. It pays to know more about it.
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