As I’m writing this review, I’m listening to Doe B, a rapper who was shot and killed last year in Alabama by one of his closest friends. He raps about the highs and lows of the streets, bad bitches, trappin’, and sports an eye patch from another shooting. The near death experience and a dope eye accessory attracted a slew of new followers, a brighter spotlight and maybe I’m reaching here, brought a new focus to his craft.
Jason Wayne Allen brings his own finely tuned focus to the table with his debut The Rotgut County Blues, originally released as a limited edition chapbook by Dynatox Ministries. The book was recently re-released via Kindle and now the masses can experience this neo-beat flavored story.
I will admit it’s been a hot minute since I’ve read any beat related work. My last run-in with the beats was during college where I was dismissive of Kerouac, loved Ginsberg, and kept Burrough’s My Education: A Book of Dreams next to my bed when I delved into lucid dreaming.
Allen’s first person narrative introduces Jack who’s drifting through life, living off his mother, and is coming to terms with the idea that he’ll be stuck in the southern podunk town Garr. In the meantime, he plays in a punk rock bands, smokes incessantly and looks for girls to fuck, but ends up falling for a red-head named Ruby. Jack is a flawed character so of course he eventually fucks up the relationship (I won’t reveal how because I’m not into spoiler alerts, they remind me of the cops).
Jack and Ruby indulge in all manner of drugs, make love and drink in a romantic white trash whirlwind pushing away the loneliness and despair of being trapped in a small town. This is further emphasized by the title. “County Blues” evokes images of prisoners and the soulful pain pervading the characters’ lives while “Rotgut” stirs up memories of chugging cheap ass beer and punctuates that social decay. Plus, this reminds me of another line from one of Doe B’s songs “You don’t know how it feel when a nigga got that monkey on their back.”
Allen seems well versed in beat culture and his portrayal of the human condition is stark and blatant, but surprisingly tender at times.
“The atmosphere peaks when she switches on the clock radio and Boys of Summer—not the Don Henley version, the cover by The Ataris—comes on and I’d never admit to liking The Ataris to anyone, normally, but at the moment they were Ruby’s and my favorite band. Later, when we’d hear this song together, neither of us would cop to it, but this was our song. The song that played the first time Ruby and I had sex without a condom. There would be panic the next day, but so worth it right now.”
“The moment, this moment and every moment is vital.”
Another thing I liked was the grittiness that highlights another pillar of the beats-anti-materialism and the rejection of certain standards society believes young people should strive for…like jobs and being sober (You can also add a little bit of that punk rock rebellion into the mix). I could smell the smoke, taste the cheap beer, and the well described fucking evoked memories of many past lovers.
The only beef I had was with the Jack in the last third of the book. He waxes philosophical about being human, but there’s moments where it’s overdone and could’ve benefitted from a little restraint. For instance, Jack talks about loneliness and fake friends (“Aka frenemies”-ghost of Doe B).
“The arrogance of the human parasite: one fat enlightened fuck just feeding off the other fat enlightened fuck, terrified of loneliness, because they can’t stand their own company. Me? I am loneliness incarnate. I’m the stoic eye in the fecal hurricane of the world’s feast and fuck frenzy!”
Now don’t get me wrong, I like the description and you might argue that’s the human condition in all of its enraged glory, but I feel Allen went a little overboard and it could’ve been toned down.
The prose is lyrical though, smooth and largely unpredictable (neo-beat flavor) shifting like a wavering snake. The jazziness, another loose allusion to the title, is apparent in the chapter headings.
In the chapter entitled “ruby eats the ouroboros,” Allen gives us a poem before we dive into the story once again.
I’m waiting for the moon to fall.
The sun is aroused and death-red over
endless, beautiful; autumn.
Umbilical snakes tease from trees of knowledge,
and we share my rib like conjoined twins.
If it isn’t apparent already, our characters are heavy drug users and skirt the fringes of society. Young lovable sinners. Allen touches on that good ole’ fashioned Biblical fear: snakes, Eve eating the apple, the rib. Jack and Ruby are wrapped around each other to the point where it becomes suffocating and you know something’s gotta give. Also, the loose Biblical references foreshadow the ball of shit that’s hurdling toward Jack at an alarming speed.
A lot of people forget that the word “beat” has always been connected to the black community and implies the idea of being exhausted and literally beaten down by life, but someone like Doe B found a way to rise above his environment even though he lost his eye as well as his life. In similar fashion, Jack and Ruby find ways to cope and rage against the ever present beat of life and the musicality of the prose brings that full circle.
The Rotgut County Blues reminds me of one of my exes—a passionate, heady no bullshit lover who’s a little rough around the edges but is always welcome to come haunt the corners of my psyche.
“Sadness is good sometimes. Like a blanket, it’s comforting and brings things back home.”