Saturday, March 4, 2017

Gully Dirt: A Gritty, Fascinating Look Into the South of the 1950s

Robert Coram’s memoir “Gully Dirt” is a witty yet deeply introspective coming-of-age story of a young kid from rural Georgia trying to climb his way out of family strife and a culture of racism. Coram grew up in Southwest Georgia in the 1950s, among peanut farmers, folks with no telephones or toilets. Set against this poor, gritty, backdrop, Coram writes with eloquence and nuance. It’s a fascinating and easy read despite the weight of some of the subject matter.

The oldest of four, Coram is despised by his ex-Army father, who seems to take pleasure in substituting anger and mean-spiritedness whenever his son needs care and attention. His mother tries as hard as she can to keep the father from unleashing hell on the son, but it’s an impossible task.

Coram never really fits in. He’s not too into religion — “from the beginning, preachers and religion frightened me” — and not very good at sports. But he does maintain a merry band of friends, and gets into some impressive sexual situations with girls for a teenage kid in the 50s. But Robert seems obsessed with a desire to flee the place he was born and raised.  

Some of this is due to his fanatical reading habits. In books, like many of us who find ourselves in strange and uncertain situations, Robert finds peace and inspiration. “In reading Poe, I discovered emotions and feelings I did not know I possessed. That summer I learned that the contents of a book could resonate in the heart and linger in the memory.” 

As he grows up, he begins to question the assumptions of his racist father and the culture in which he grew up. Much of this is brought on when he reads a book by a Georgia author named Frank Yerby. “Mr. Yerby said that men in the South were ‘too enamored by the mystical brotherhood of whiteness to comprehend democracy’ and that the rise of black men did not mean the fall of whiteness.” Coram continues: “I was deeply disturbed. The book had forced me to consider whether what I thought I knew about black people could be wrong. If there were in reality black people such as those Frank Yerby described, they were clearly superior to many of the white people I knew. The scope of such a heretical idea was, at the time, simply too much for me to assimilate.” 

He devours all of Yerby’s books, which further instills in him the power of the written word: “… a book is more than pages covered with printed words. A book is a package of wonder, a container of bliss, a vale of emotion, an unexploded bomb.”

An even bigger shock comes when he learns that the author is black: “I was obsessed — there is no other word for it — with the discovery that Frank Yerby, the greatest writer that God ever put on earth, was from Georgia. And he was black.” Coram continues: “The books of Frank Yerby were a yeasty concoction that would ferment for years and make me question the things I had been taught about black people, about the South, about my family, about the very roots of my existence.” 

But institutional racism wasn’t built overnight, and a kid raised in this culture doesn’t quickly extricate himself from it. Coram writes: “The racism that was in the marrow of my bones would, like a virulent poison, take years to eradicate.”

The title of the book is a little misleading. Coram does raise a hog, and he does “escape” the South, at least in spirit, but there is no exposing of the Klan. Young Coram and his buddies do sneak into an old building in the woods that turns out to be a Klan hideout, complete with hoods and white capes. They mess around a bit, but nothing much comes of it. I was expecting the Klan to feature a bit more prominently in this book, and hoping Coram would somehow stick it to the Klan, but none of that happens. 

Still, this is a wonderfully written memoir that seems to speak truly and honestly about this specific time and place.

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