Although I've written a good deal about J.L. Carr, the Card of Kettering, on this blog (try a search in the box above), there are several of his books I've never read. So, when I spotted a copy of The Battle of Pollocks Crossing (Penguin paperback, with a rather lurid cover) on the shelves of a local charity shop, I snapped it up. I've just finished it now, and a hugely enjoyable read it was.
The Battle of Pollocks Crossing is the novel inspired by Carr's unlikely spell as a schoolteacher in the prairie town of Huron, South Dakota. That was in the late Thirties, and Carr sets his novel a decade earlier, when farming was in a state of collapse as the good earth turned to dust, and the banks and corporations foreclosed on ruined families. This is no Steinbeckian social-realist tragedy, though; it's a richly funny comedy, with the horrors of the agricultural depression forming a dark backcloth to the comic action - at least until everything comes together in the luridly dramatic climax.
The story is ingeniously framed within the present-day recollections of the elderly George Gidner, who at the start of the novel is angrily refusing to return to Palisades, South Dakota, the scene of his traumatic experiences of half a century earlier. The old Gidner appears intermittently throughout, and at times the narrative, which is mostly in the third person, slips into the first. The viewpoint is largely the young George Gidner's, but parts of the story are necessarily told from outside - as when, at the beginning, Gidner lands the teaching position in Palisades, courtesy of the Anglo-American Goodwill League, who are glad to be shot of a posting that no one wanted.
The initially idealistic Gidner, a Yorkshire lad, thinks the experience will make him a Different Man, and so it does, but not in any way he might have envisaged. By the time the train finally delivers him at Palisades, a prairie outpost of mind-numbing tedium, the process of disillusionment is already under way, and he finds little to slow it down as he gets to know the town and its inhabitants (and as he finds out about American teaching methods - all crackpot theories, endless questionnaires and rigidly prescribed readings).
Facing the prospect of struggling to survive on a tiny stipend, Gidner is taken under the wing of the town's banker, storekeeper and number one character Henry Farewell (stress on the first syllable), who rents him a room in his rooming-house. Farewell is an old-fashioned Anglophile with a library of 18th-century English classics, and lively memories of his own stay in England as a young man. He bombards young Gidner with anachronistic questions about life in England, and regales him with memories of his own sojourn there, when he settled in a country inn with a notably pneumatic landlady. Farewell's orotund account of his 'discovery' of England runs in counterpoint to George's equally eccentric 'discovery' of America - in the course of which he decides, just as J.L. Carr did, to write a history of the place he has found himself in and its people. But events overtake that project, along with everything else, as the enigmatic Farewell plays his last hand...
The Battle of Pollocks Crossing is a short novel, coming in at under 180 pages, and a quick read (even for the likes of slow-reading me), the rich and characterful dialogue carrying things merrily along. A colourful cast of small-town characters - each of them presenting some new conundrum to the hapless Gidner - keep the wry comedy bubbling, even as, towards the end, George realises just how little he knows of what is really going on in Palisades, and in Henry Farewell's head. This is a highly distinctive work, one that could only have been written by J.L. Carr - and yet it could hardly be more different from his masterpiece, A Month in the Country. If you come across it, do give it a try.