The Other Side of the Bay
© 2014 Sean Dietrich
There’s a broken down truck in the woods holding three men, two drunk brothers and a passed-out football has-been. By morning, the truck will be discovered in perfect working condition, and the has-been found to be dead in the drunk tank at the sheriff’s office. The Other Side of the Bay ranks among the most interesting of Dietrich’s works that I’ve yet tried, in part because of its unusual structure; it weaves back and forth between past and present, which run increasingly close together as the tale emerges, and in the world of small, rural towns, these two are not far apart: as Faulkner commented, the past is never dead; it is not even past. The continuity of this rural community is a strength and a theme of this story of two lonely men, a father and son who are heartbroken by the loss of the woman who bound their lives together. Bringing them together again is a mystery in the back woods, one that will create a further mystery when the man being held overnight doesn’t wake up in the morning. As Dietrich tells the story of Jimmy working through the mystery, attempting to figure out what happened and what the demands of justice are in this case, we experience his past, forever hovering in his mind – especially scenes of his father’s long service as the sheriff, a position Jimmy now inherits. Fans of The Incredible Winston Browne will see a precursor of that other Panhandle lawman here, as both Jimmy and his father are not merely hunters of speeders and ne’er do wells, but community fixtures, offering strength in wise counsel and steady presence rather than swaggering and boasting. It’s a strength born of suffering, as the reader shall see. Although the book deals with serious themes – loss and revenge – it also offers the comfortable escape of a small-town setting, complete with quirky characters ribbing one another even as they join together in serious work like investigating a murder. Winston Browne was a better-organized book, but I thought Dietrich’s unusual structure ultimately effective in demonstrating the living presence of the past in the South, especially its smaller towns where all are bound together by shared memories.
“I hope they don’t have anything to do with Holbrook’s misfortune and untimely death.”
“Misfortune and untimely death?” I said. “What are you, Walt Whitman?”
“I’m supposed to be hunting right this very moment.”
“Is that what you call hunting?” Hooty said. “I thought it was called getting drunk in a cabin.”
“It is,” Billy said. “But to our wives, it’s called hunting.”
Investigation for my daddy meant riding around town during the dinner hours, stopping at folk’s houses, cordially inviting men out onto their porches, right in the middle of supper. “You have a good chance of getting a man to talk if he’s got his kids nearby.” My daddy would say as he walked up to someone’s porch. “Children have a way of reminding grown men of what’s right and wrong.”
“She’s at least twenty years younger than you,” I said thinking of Billy’s saintly wife, Francis. “Besides, I don’t think young Willa is in the market for a forty-five-year-old, beer-drinking, beardless Santa Claus.”
I realized that Daddy wasn’t telling his story to me at all, he was telling it to himself. He was revisiting something special. I just happened to be standing there, witnessing a moment that he kept locked away in his box of memories. It was the place inside him where that rural boy with the homemade slingshot still lived.
“The way I sees it,” Daddy said. “Sometimes evil infects a man like a disease. The disease eats him up inside, consuming his organs, weaving its way into his bones. Then it crawls up to his head and gets all in his mind. Before you know it, the man starts to froth at the mouth like a rabid dog, raising the hair on his neck, baring his teeth. You look into his eyes, and you can tell he ain’t even in his body no more, just the disease.”