Madness, guilt, violence, and nature make not uncommon appearances in Soil, Jamie Kornegay’s modern-day Southern novel that follows the well-established guidelines of the genre. Precedence can stagnate or inspire, and fortunately for Kornegay, he was affected by the latter: his first novel is a creative endeavor that reminds us that tales of the American South can still be fresh and powerful stories.
The novel centers on the ruin of main character James Mize. Mize is an environmental scientist who buys a rural Mississippi farm with the hopes of developing advanced soil and fertilizing techniques that will revolutionize the farming industry and assist global problems of pollution and hunger. These lofty ambitions are all for naught, though, as various hardships--the worst being massive floods--destroy everything Mize holds dear. Mize’s wife, Sandy, flees to town with their young son, leaving Mize to wander the flooded (and ruined) farm alone in an increasingly paranoid and unstable mental state. These problems are exacerbated by the appearance of a dead body on the farm and various other events that occur in a mostly linear narrative.
As that narrative unfolds, a sense of doom hangs over everyone and everything in Soil. Even the most casual reader will easily see the overarching theme of futility. Despite that futility, the characters react to desperate circumstances, and Kornegay’s examination of their persistence is what makes the novel so interesting. He presents a garden of richly cultivated characters that he skillfully forces against each other, evoking strong feelings that invest readers. The characters are complex: they are despicable yet sympathetic, funny and frustrating, and always intriguing. Archetypal, yes, but each has a fitting place that is vital to the plot.
There is a well-meaning pot-head neighbor, a benevolent father-in-law, a rustic woodsmen bent on revenge, and a
Southern deputy who is as redneck and sex-crazed as Southern-deputy characters come. The deputy’s behavior is ridiculously over-the-top, but it is essential to the plot. One of the funnier moments is when he lectures seventh-grade students who are described as having “urchin eyes” and “hormones and expectations [that] filled the room like noxious gas” (55). The pubescent teens are schooled by an adult authority figure
who has not really matured any more than they have. These various moments of humor provide needed comic relief from all the tragedy, but the dialogue at these times often seems corny and weak.
However, Kornegay’s creatively worded descriptions and exciting events forgive the occasional tripe that drops awkwardly out of the mouths of his otherwise interesting characters.
Those mouths are important, because Kornegay repeatedly emphasizes food. His use of food imagery assists descriptions and makes food an important part of Soil.
She opened the cellar door and descended daintily ahead of him, her nerves pulsing, a slight blush in her abdomen … [he] followed, eager to go down with her to this secret place where strange bodies could be fed what they so ravenously deserved. (219) Food also functions in a more literal sense: Mize, who once dreamed of curing world hunger, is now starving as he refuses to abandon and fears to leave his empty, broken-down farm. He even resorts to eating the soil that he increasingly views as superior to mankind:
He’d licked the wall of the pit, a yellow-brown strata of clay, and enjoyed the seductive taste, pulled a nugget and eaten furtively. It tasted of rich vinegary mustard greens. The salt and the sugar were present with the sharp bitters … He made flatbread with the old beetle flour and rainwater and ate them together, a dirty taco. A little gritty but uncommonly delicious. This could pass in finer restaurants, he believed. What more were your truffles and mushrooms but ambitious mud? (133) Mize’s behavior and starvation are contrasted against his wife, who overeats constantly to cope with the stress of her disrupted life and family.
While food is an important part of Soil, there is also an ubiquitous quilt that affects present events and often motivates character actions. Mize had an ancestor who committed a crime against an African-American manure salesman. Now Mize is an environmental scientist obsessed with compost and fertilization--essentially a “salesman” of manure--which presents a darkly humorous irony. Mize frets over his family history and his wife feels guilty about disrupting their family by dissolving her marriage. Even characters
who lack guilt, like the deputy, are eventually affected by it. Thus, Kornegay reveals that guilt can motivate, but often as a destructive force of ruin. The abstract use of guilt is anchored by the physicality of the water: water that is necessary for sustaining life, yet the unstoppable flood leaves only devastation in its wake. “The water had made its final authentication on this piece of damnable ground” (174). Mize cannot escape his guilt or the waters that are destroying him, much like Soil does not entirely escape old themes even though it uses them in a valiant effort.
When held up against the crowd of so many powerful predecessors, Soil is incapable of standing out. However, Soil deserves its own credit for being an enjoyable read that, at its roots, is a parable showing the varied forms destructive forces can take (both external and internal) and the consequences of poor decisions. This message is basic, but the story presents that message with originality and skill. Soil is a solid first-novel that plants Kornegay as a talented American writer capable of growth and, perhaps someday, literary beauty.
It will be a pleasure for readers to enjoy his stories and watch him grow towards what he is fully capable of.