Fifty Shades of Drivel vs. Tobacco Road

This is called killing two birds with one stone and, yes, I realize that putting these two books together in the one review is complete heresy, but James’ book doesn’t warrant any more than a few cursory comments and I finished reading it before embarking on Caldwell’s American classic.

Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James, is absolute rubbish. For anyone contemplating reading it, don’t bother, you’ll only be disappointed. Pick up a nice Mills and Boon instead. It will probably be rubbish too, but at least it won’t be nearly as long or tedious, and you won’t feel like you’ve wasted a valuable chunk of your life when you’ve finished.

There’s a reason E. L. James had to self-publish her novel: those in the know knew it was appallingly written garbage. All I can say is this: James must have an awful lot of good friends or people she knows in high places, because without them, there’s no way this book could have become such a sensation.

Tobacco Road, on the other hand, is a solid literary work. Written in 1932, it has stood the test of time. It was so popular (banning and burning a book is one way to ensure that) that it was made into a stage show, running for seven years on Broadway. It’s sold millions of copies and was made into a film in 1941.

The story itself is dark and depressing, for the most part, being set outside the city of Augusta in Georgia during the Great Depression. It depicts the severe hardships experienced by one particular family, the Lesters, who were once big-time farmers, but have since been drastically reduced to destitute, white tenant farmers.

The characters are all ignorant, illiterate, base human beings, gradually losing their grip on humanity, due to their dire circumstances. Jeeter, the quintessential “gunna” man, as in tomorrow I’m gunna hire me a mule, or tomorrow I’m gunna plough that field, or take Ellie May to the doctor, never gets around to doing anything. They have nothing to eat and no means of getting food or money. In addition, they have little or no regard for the well being of each other. Every day is a matter of survival, and when Jeeter’s mother is run over by a car in the yard, they just walk away and leave her to die.

At the same time, though, Caldwell injects a level of comedy into the story: a concept that some reviewers seem at odds to accept. For them, humour and the seriousness of human degradation cannot go hand in hand: it must be one or the other. The absurdity of the characters and the farcical, unbelievable situations they find themselves in, however, only enhance the pathetic, relentless nature of their plight, highlighting the effects the Depression had on the lives of so many.

Caldwell is a skilled writer. As I read about the purchase of Bessie’s new car, for example, and the absolute abuse it received in her’s and the Lesters’ hands, my mouth was mentally agape: horrified but utterly intrigued and amused at the same time.

Tobacco Road is number ninety one on the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels. Fifty Shades of Grey may be a bestselling novel, but it will never be a good book.

Enjoy the former, if “enjoy” is the right word.


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