Preview: Charles McNair's New Novel Pickett's Charge
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Paste books editor Charles McNair has just published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. We’re incredibly biased towards Charles, since he also happens to be one of our favorite people on Earth. He tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, the last living Confederate soldier who’d like nothing more than to get to Maine so he can kill the last Yankee soldier. But don’t take our word for how good—how uproariously funny, smart and enjoyable a read—this book is. Read an exclusive sample chapter, “LaRue’s Last Stand,” for yourself. And then go buy the book at Amazon or your local purveyor of novels.
Alabama – Summer 1964
In the first hours, LaRue slowed only once.
A gaggle of hysterically laughing cracker children stood, sunburned, in the middle of the highway north of Stockton. As they fanned away gnats and blue smoke, the kids took turns puffing a huge cigar, then putting it to the stubby tail of a miserable, doomed snapping turtle caught halfway across US 31.
The Cadillac’s deceleration and the delighted shrieks of the children briefly stirred the moneys and the old Threadgill back to wakefulness. But LaRue sped up again, Threadgill sank into the buttery softness of the Cadillac’s black upholstery, and the monkeys fainted back to silence.
Time passed. Miles passed.
The travelers rocketed through little picture-perfect towns set under arcades of ancient, elephant-gray oaks. Sunlight draped the heavy limbs, and resurrection fern glowed gold and green in the high places.
Between catnaps, Threadgill briefly studied the luxuries of the Cadillac. The dashboard boasted ranks of electric switches and dials, complicated as the pipe organ. LaRue simply touched a button here, and a button there. A window slid up. A door locked. The air condition gushed. White magic.
Especially the AC.
On any given summer day in the tropical South, temperatures melted candles inside houses, and tiny hatched bags of rice in the kitchen cupboards.
But here in Lash LaRue’s car all was well with the world.
It was coooooooooooooooool.
So what made LaRue switch off the air every few minutes and roll down the window?
He read Threadgill’s thoughts.
“Gremlins. All in the wires. I run the air too long, red lights pop up on my dashboard. Looks like Christmas,” LaRue explained. He buzzed down all four windows and the thundering heat of Alabama engorged the car for a moment. “Get it fixed here directly with my monkey money!”
Threadgill felt eyes on him and glanced back. The monkeys now lay together in one corner of the cage, a miserable, foul-smelling, overheated, bemired mound of fur, feet, prehensile tails.
“Looka here, Hoss! Tourists! Hoo!”
The target of LaRue’s spirits was now a sunburned family huddled under a concrete awning at a roadside picnic area. They blinked like stunned refugees, their mouths working corners of pimento cheese sandwiches. The daddy of the family sucked at the mouth of a tea jug. Three scruffy redheads, all boys, sat at a separate table, throwing sand spur sandwiches to the seagulls. One child crushed a boiled egg in his hand like a soft little head. The mother, uselessly protesting, held a red-hot, screaming infant against her shoulder.
“Honey bunny!” LaRue hollered at her. “Nice Titties!”
The Cadillac tore past the bait shack and the beer store. These appeared to be the last signs of human habitation before the highway entered the tangled everglades of the Mobile River Delta.
Here, if possible, the heat grew even worse.
Threadgill decided they might as well be driving through the middle of the sun. No breezy roadside zephyr cooled the car. No chilly breaths exhaled from the swamp. Even the visual aids failed; there was no Annette Funicellos wandering the sidewalks in cute shorts, no carefree Frankies in funny bermuda shorts. All the roadside distractions lay behind: Bait Land, Alabama Snake Farm, The Boobie Trap Exotic Dance Barn, Holy Land Amusement Park. Threadgill felt heat and heat alone: alligator-breeding, fruit-fouling heat.
LaRue appeared heedless. Windows still down, he whooped sporadically to spook a great blue heron into flight or scare a snake off some low cypress limb. One big cottonmouth hung close enough to snag with a crowbar.
“I’ve seen my fifty-fifth summer!” howled LaRue. “I’ve held the hottest job in the Navy, working down in the boiler room in the steel guts of a Hellcat carrier! I’ve stoked the engines when kamikazes swarmed over the whole goddamn ship like yellow jackets! I gnawed off my own arm, durn it, to get away from that ugly Filipino gal without waking her up. Yessire, old timer, if there’s one thing I know, it’s HEAT! And heat ain’t killed Larry LaRue yet. Hear?”
He yelled right up at the sun, squinting.
“Not yet, you goddamn summer bus bump!”
LaRue flipped on the radio. It spit out a big spark at him – Zzzzrrp! Then Roy Orbison got in the car. Mooning, moaning, all out of sorts.
LaRue yelled at the singer too.
“Bad luck, Roy Boy? Phooey! You got to fight it Orby! Fight it pussy boy! You got to haul out the big dream, get tough, get going ”
Threadgill flinched at a plaintive monkey cry in falsetto. LaRue eyed the rearview mirror in surprise. The creature trembled in spasm, rolled over, shook violently against the caged door, a little dried leaf in a hurricane.
“Heat stroke!” LaRue barked at him. “Seen it a hundred times. It don’t kill hardly nobody.”
Another monkey had a seizure. The tiny hand opened and closed once on the wire of the cage.
The radio babbled at full boil. Dangerously hot, it singsonged, the deejay with a voice like a spoonsful of ice cream on chilled strawberries somewhere.
One hundred four degrees – Saturday’s got a fever folks!