The Old Man’s Place – John B. Sanford

This is some kind of awful in a good way. Talk about “deplorables,” this book has three of the worst. I have 40 pages left to read before the end and I’m hesitant to read them because that would mean the end of the book.dsc_0067-2 I had never hear of John B. Sanford or The Old Man’s Place, but my brother collects books and in his book hunting came across this edition in a thrift store. The $1.80 he reportedly spent is certainly worth the book cover alone, but according to my brother’s research, when the novel came out in 1935, both Hemingway and Faulkner enjoyed it. So it had the potential to be one of those lost gems of American Lit.

Three men are in a bar. It is post World War I and the three men are each introduced with their own backstory. All are what you would call “good for nothings.” Tramps, hobos, violent, dangerous crooks on the American skids. As a reader, you pretty quickly just want to see them to get annihilated, or rather, let Life finish the job it started. There is no good to come from any of these three. One is a pimple faced, rotten-toothed ex-jockey named James Pilgrim. The second, Martin Flood is a giant ex-farmboy from Nebraska who had learned a thing or two while serving in France. Then Trubee Pell, the son of a farmer and best of the bunch who has also had trouble after the war.

There’s something of the Beat Generation in this book—outsider Americans on the bum in post-war America, only in this case the year is 1920. These three have teamed up to get what they can get, live what they can live, and they’re not going to be the kind of rubes to take orders from anybody. They are in pursuit of the basics only: something to eat, something to drink, and something to lay on top of. The method they get those things is by any means necessary.

Queue Anna Wayne… well, no, not quite yet. Before Anna’s appearance, Trubee takes his other two no-goods to his father’s farm (Walter Pell’s) where they promptly abuse him and take over. Walter is glad to see his son after such a long absence and seems to be Christian enough to turn the other cheek to some pretty bad abuses. They eat his food, order him around, and kick him out of his bedroom. At this point you pretty much want the rest of the novel to be Mr. Pell going Rambo on them all, and there doesn’t seem to be any other logical way to satisfy the reader’s desire before the story ends. After stealing a truck loaded with numerous cases of Johnnie Walker, James Pilgrim answers an advertisement for a matchmaking service found in the back of the nudie magazine “Spicy Paree”.dsc_0069-2

Now queue Anna. On the other end of the matchmaking service is Anna Wayne, a poor farm girl who has nothing and nobody but herself and her fantasy of someday having a real “sweetheart.” James Pilgrim’s letters, which are nothing but lies to hook her interest: that he’s over six feet tall, owns 200 acres good paying land, goes to church and never sick a day in his life. It’s the original “catfish.”

When James picks her up at the train station, since he doesn’t fit the description of himself in his letters to Anna, he has to lie to her and say he’s picking her up for the real James Pilgrim who is waiting with the Pastor to marry them out at the farm. Once he convinces Anna to get in the wagon, the reader knows the short term future will not be good for the poor, gullible girl. She’s walking right into repeated rapings, abuse, and probably murder. When they arrive at the farm, Anna sees the most violent of the bunch, Martin Flood, and because he is over 6 feet, assumes he is the sweetheart who wrote those letters. And Flood, licking his chops at the sight of Anna, sees right off what there is to gain by saying he’s the real James Pilgrim. It’s horrific, comical, and teeth-gritting all in one. There seems to be little to save Anna from being a captive sex slave for these hideous three.

Here the story sort of softens and takes a turn. Furious that Flood has stolen his mail order bride right out from under him, Pilgrim takes a gun and gives Flood his comeuppance in the form of a shot in the shoulder and another in the groin. The latter is to Pilgrim’s great disappointment, as he repeatedly laments “about not getting him in the works.” Trubee, the more kind of the three, tries to convince Anna to get away from them, but with nothing else to turn to, she inexplicably decides to actually stick around. Flood heals up with the aid of a doctor and that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I don’t know the end and anyway, in reading a blog neither should you.

Straightaway the remarkable thing about this book is the language. It is violent, highly sexual (“rape-y” is more accurate), and chock full of choice 1920’s euphemisms. When you compare The Old Man’s Place to Hemingway’s stories involving the same class of people (“The Killers” “The Battler” and “Light of the World”) you have to give Sanford some credit for revealing the language and psyche of the modern American outlaw in a way that seems a step further than Hemingway goes. The language is more crude, their lusts more raw.

Like I said, I’d never heard of this guy in my life. I have no idea (yet) what else John B. Sanford has written. Nor can I guess what success you’ll have in locating a copy of The Old Man’s Place. But if you do (and it’s easy reading) you’re in for a 1935 treat.


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