Preview: Charles McNair's New Novel Pickett's Charge

Books Features Charles McNair
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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!

The monkey confusions seemed to bring the monkeys closer to earth.

“Hmm. One hundred and four. Might be too hot after all for little things in fur coats today,” he suggested to Threadgill. “I better chill ‘em down!”

LaRue flicked on the air condition. Instantly, Siberian winter howled in. Threadgill felt delicious chills over his scorched body. A little whining moan rose from the dashboard.

LaRue winked at Threadgll.

“Man versus heat! Man WINS!” he yelled.

One window glided up.

“Man wins again!” he yelled. Windows two and three closed.

“Man—”

Now came a terrific soul-rending brain-splitting screech of pain from the back seat. It rose in a wobbly crescendo, louder, LOUDER, finally big and fierce enough to chatter the very windows of the Cadillac.

It was the end of time.

It was the Scream of the Universe.

Jesus! What WAS that?

LaRue twisted to look, then immediately recoiled so violently that he banged his shocked head on the rear view mirror.

A frantic, doll-sized monkey flopped and flipped against the glass directly in back of Threadgill. The power window had pinned its head. In agony, the monkey thrashed and wiggled like a fur snake with its head trapped under a stick. Its scream hurt even the back of Threadgills eyes.

If that sight didn’t shake LaRue, the next one surely did.

Forty-one furious fellow monkeys, slowly, sickly, oozed in one moist brown mass out the gaping open door of the chicken wire cage.

The lock on the cage had failed.

LaRue lost the car in his dismay.

The black Cadillac bounded onto the rutted, cat-tailed shoulder, flattened a PERDIDO 17 MILES sign and came sideways around a fishtail of mud, rubber and ripped vegetation. The engine coughed. The car shivered a moment. Then all went perfectly still.

It came to Threadgill at once. This will be very, very bad.

Without motion, the monkeys felt no motion sickness.

Threadgill quickly opened his duffel bag, put his feet inside, yanked the heavy laundry canvas completely over him like a cocoon. He wrapped the blankets of bedroll over his head and shoulders. Then, deep in padding, Threadgill’s hand pinched shut the opening at his face, and he disappeared from view. Larry LaRue only had time to gulp once before a slick brown wave crashed over him from the back seat.

*
Threadgill found his thoughts drifting, little white heedless balloons floating up throughout the quiet eye of a cyclone.

He recalled frying bacon, in boyhood years ago, the smoking skillet, the grease popping – ouch! – onto his arm.

He thought of the time he saw a wild fox tear the heads off Aunt Annie’s chickens.

He remembered a dream. A poor fellow stood in the door of a burning house, alarm fire, waving both arms in slow motion like a flaming snowman.

The Cadillac rocked on its axles.

Threadgill distantly heard LaRue’s cries over the chilly gale of banshees.

He Imagined LaRue as a giant covered with very fast, very fierce, fantastically fragile biting gnomes with serrated teeth and forty-two unholy grudges.

Threadgill envisioned the breakout. In one corner of his suspecting mind, he saw a clever little monkey hand reach through the chicken wire with a rusted six-penny nail, pulled from some loose joint in the cage. The creature poked nail into keyhole – voila! A fateful click, a lock opened, snatched free.

LaRue must have been too busy yelling out window to notice.

He’ll listen next time, Threadgill thought. If he still has ears.

He dared a peek.

Monkeys covered LaRue like a fur disease.

Rebel yells had turned to painful screams now. Threadgill wondered how LaRue even made those.

Monkeys savaged his lips. They put their heads into his mouth and bit his tongue. They chewed his cheeks. They ripped out his nose hair and loosened their bowels down the next of his black silk shirt. Assailants attacked from every side. They even went after his hook – Threadgill got a snapshot view of dozens of small, toothlike indentions over a saliva-slick brass surface.

The escaped prisoners vented their rage on the Cadillac too. Monkeys tore foam rubber padding from the seats. They emptied their bladders over the dashboard and spurted feces down the AC vents. They flew through the air in acrobatic leaps, ripped open a carton of Camels and hurled broken cigarettes in all directions. They brutally shredded roadmaps, pulled monkey wrenches – monkey wrenches! – and empty Suncrest orange bottles from under the seat and beat LaRue with them. The driver’s expensive sunglasses covered the seat in blue chips. Something electrical went wrong too, once and for all.

The car’s air conditioning coughed, newly gummed up with monkey excrement. The dash panel issued a sound like a dental drill, then a white spark leaped from the control console. A mushroom puff of black smoke followed, billowing out of the dashboard rising to destruction against the roof.

Frantically, LaRue flipped open vents to clear the air. The act brought new and even blacker clouds of smoke roiling from the AC, followed by a sudden jet of frothy burned-pimento-cheese liquid that dribbled over his shoes.

The car became unbelievably hot at once. Threadgill’s blankets were now his sweat lodge. Huge black pansies bloomed in his field of vision.

There came a pattering, and Threadgill knew the monkeys attacked his own blankets. A tiny wicked face actually appeared into his peephole. Bubbles of raging snot shot from the creatures nose. Threadgill quickly pinched that view.

He felt the whirlpool of monkey close, linger, leave abruptly for LaRue again like a migrating flock of birds.

He peeked again.

LaRue wore a toupee of biting monkeys. Toothmarks crated his scalp, and his ear hung like it was stapled on. His cranium looked like a fresh-skinned possum.

The driver’s good hands fumbled in the floorboard, desperately groping for car keys, these wickedly snatched away by his tormentors.

No keys.

Finally, LaRue grabbed the door handle. Threadgill was surprised his surrender took so long.

The door stayed shut.

It was welded, the power locks electronically overruled.

Smoke poured from the dashboard.

Black acrid midnight gathered inside the Cadillac.

Then – a plain stroke of Providence – LaRue’s flailing hands somehow found car keys.
His scream of triumph momentarily froze the monkeys. Just for a second.

Just long enough.

LaRue jammed the keys into the ignition. The engine roared. The car lurched ahead, woozy but mobile.

The instant the Cadillac moved, the monkeys immediately melted away into docility, motion sickness taking the fight from them. Wherever they were in the car, they swooned feebly back to their seats, doors and windows. As hot as it was, Threadgill refused to come out of his teepee.

*
The speeding Cadillac traveled north.

Crickets and cicadas yelled with all their might outside. Let ‘em yell, Threadgill thought. They could yell for all eternity and never fill up a thimble.

Threadgill drove the black Cadillac now. He’d never been at the wheel of an automobile before. He’d only ridden in a few – once a police car, once an ambulance, once a trip to a doctor for geriatrics who wanted to study him, simply amazed at his robust health.

Now Threadgill drove.

It was effortless for him at 120 mph.

The white stripes on the highway hypothetically danced under his humming wheels. Threadgill thought of swimming sea snakes in a gray ocean. Telephone poles flickered past. Every time Threadgill crosses a rickety bridge over some nameless slough, the racket of the roadside insects in the woods briefly ceased. A guest of silence.

The road was very lonely. Not much traffic in these parts. The grumbling 18-wheel Macks and Peterbilts traveled faster routes, leaving the godforsaken lonely back roads to black Cadillacs with old men at the wheel.

Ahead in the road, the glowing eye of some creature blinked red semaphore. Threadgill watched a cloudy shape on four legs gallump into the weeds.

Live to fight another day possum. Threadgill cast the thought, like a prayer into the dark where the animal disappeared, where overgrowth lay down on either side of the road to worship as the Cadillacs passed. The dashboard clock said 3 a.m. Who knew if that was right? who cared?

The Cadillac passed a mobile home. A husky red-haired boy chunked rocks at bull bats dive-bombing a streetlight. The boy threw a rock at the Cadillac too.

Crack!

Threadlight lost the road. A wheel dropped off the pavement and dragged a thousand feet of goldenrod and dog fennel down a muddy shoulder. Threadgill wrestled the steering wheel, and slammed on the the brakes in a panic.

A large shape filled the windshield.

The Cadillac’s tires screamed and smoked.

Then everything stopped.

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