Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres is a dark, action-packed novel that reads like a fast-paced screenplay. Published in 2013, this “western noir” set in the gutters of morality is reminiscent of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”; except, instead of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s mentor-mentee relationship, we witness the unlikely partnership between Sheriff Jimmy Mondale and semi-retired drug lord, Chowder Thompson. The other leading member of this twisted cast is Terry Hickerson, a low-life who robs local convenience stores, gets wasted on the regular, and blackmails a gay priest.
Terry, Chowder, and Jimmy are all fathers, which adds an unexpected family dynamic to the otherwise violent and crude novel. We see three fathers trying to keep reign over their children, while also managing their own hectic, criminal lives. Chowder, a meth kingpin and mastermind, is the only one who is not divorced. He and his wife share a surprisingly healthy relationship. Although he and his daughter have disputes, they still have a decent level of respect for one another. Jimmy, the “good guy” sheriff who gets mixed up with the meth enterprise, struggles more than Chowder to maintain strong relations with his family, often feeling distant and isolated. Meanwhile, Terry instills the same “values” in his son that he cares about in his own life: sex, drugs, and money. Terry’s son has respect for him, despite his father’s twisted values and his parents’ separation. Ayres illustrates that fatherhood does not follow a prescribed set of rules, nor does it always coincide with morality. He shows us that what we expect is not always the case; a drug lord can have a better relationship with his family than a sheriff.
The novel jumps from character to character; each short section is titled Mondale, Chowder, or Terry. At first, the reader may be confused about how these three storylines relate, but as the plot develops, everything becomes clearer. Ayres’ choice to use third-person narration was wise because it keeps the reader more detached, as if the actions were being shown on-screen. If Ayres had written the novel in first-person, the characters’ voices would have gotten in the way of the action. Instead, the reader gets to infer the characters’ motivations through subtle glimpses of feeling, rather than being guided hand-in-hand through all of their thought processes.
Through this entangled web of ethically perverse characters, Ayres blurs the line of good versus evil, white versus black, leaving you to contemplate the gray “muck” of humanity. By throwing punch after punch of familial struggles and gut-wrenching dilemmas, Ayres keeps you invested and builds up suspense for an unpredictable end. The use of dramatic irony in Peckerwood is very effective. In a way, you become the “blackmailer” as you learn all of the dirty details and gossip surrounding the characters’ lives: the crimes they commit, the lies they tell, and the secrets they keep. The characters may not know what disaster is headed for them, but you do, and you just can’t look away. Like the characters, you will feel a sense of “There’s no turning back now,” as you become engrossed in Ayres’ vulgar and ruthless depiction of corrupt, rural America.
Peckerwood evokes a spirit of the Wild West with its rugged, outlaw standoffs and dramatic one-liners. When Jimmy finds out that Terry is about to turn in his partner Chowder to the police, he looks around himself and realizes “that this land was once the wild west. And that it still was.” (182). Through dramatic standoffs and a struggle for power in an underprivileged urban world, Ayres recalls the western genre: the motivation for conquest of the untamed American frontier. The characters attempt to create order in their complicated criminal pursuits, just as characters in the western genre attempt to order the chaos surrounding unclaimed land. For Terry, this means gaining power over men of authority, such as manipulating the rich priest through blackmail or turning in Chowder for arrest. Chowder and Jimmy try to create a sense of order by staying on the down low, while reaping the benefits of their profitable drug empire.
Ayres also uses wordplay, which adds symbolism and depth to his writing style. The title itself is a slang term for a redneck. Peckerwood is “woodpecker” reversed. It refers more specifically to the red-bellied woodpecker, which has a patch of red on the back of its head and neck. The woodpecker itself is considered a bother or a nuisance, much like Terry’s intrusive and meddlesome role in the novel. We see how Ayres incorporates wordplay when Chowder says to Jimmy, “As a man with my own family, I sympathize. If you want the peckerwood chopped down, something can be arranged.” (140).
The term “peckerwood” also has a more profane association to the word “pecker,” which coincides with the abundance of swearing and vulgarity in the novel. When Chowder breaks into Terry’s home, he looks at Terry “sleeping like innocence. Innocence trying to stuff busted fingers down the front of its pants” (187). In this crude image, Terry, the redneck, the peckerwood, displays his lack of “innocence” by trying to touch his “pecker” with his mangled, injured hands from a previous standoff with Jimmy. Ayres manages to weave in “read-between-the-lines” symbolism hidden behind the obscenities, transforming low-life vulgarity into worthwhile literature.
231 pages. Broken River Books, 2013, $14.95