Now, years after the whispers and rumors, the muddy Tallahatchie River gives up its secrets- the secrets within the haunting ballad that swept America.
This week, another case of “What the hell did I just read?”
Background: Well, to start off with, it is a book, based on a movie, based on a hit song:
I am told that listeners during the summer of 1967 were obsessed with finding “clues” in the Bobbie Gentry’s lyrics to unravel the “mystery” and figure out what Billie Joe was throwing off the bridge and why he jumped himself.
Nine years later, the actor who played Jethro on “The Beverly Hillbillies” produced and directed a Major Motion Picture (I can’t make this stuff up!) to answer all of your questions. In tandem with the film’s release, screenwriter Herman Raucher collaborated with Gentry on a novelization that then further muddled the answers to those questions.
The Plot: The book opens with a lengthy prologue, which adapts the first few verses of the song, but at least the author realizes that when crafting prose, one must do more than keep rhyming things with “Tallahatchie Bridge”:
She wiped her hands on her apron, like she always did. And she called out, like she always did: “Remember to wipe your feet.”
“News from Choctaw Ridge. Seems- Billy Joe McAllister? Seems the boy jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
Papa said, “Well, Billy Joe never had a lick o’ sense. Pass the biscuits, please.”
Mama went on. “Brother Taylor dropped by. Said he’d be pleased to have dinner with us on Sunday. Oh, by the way, he said he saw a girl who looked a lot like you- and that she and Billy Joe McAllister was throwin’ somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”
After the set-up, there is not much by way of plot. 19 year old Billie/Billy Joe McAllister, the childhood friend of 15 year old Bobbie Lee Hartley, is back in town with his family after a lengthy absence and succession of failed farms.
Bobbie Lee’s parents insist that she must wait a few more years to receive gentlemen callers, which of course just drives the love/lust struck teens into meeting clandestinely. In between interludes, Bobbie Lee confesses all to a rag doll named Benjamin, her constant companion, which no one thinks is weird.
While light on plot, the book is heavy on descriptions of the physical aspects of Bobbie Lee and Billy Joe’s courtship. And those descriptions are bizarre. Not to mention gross and sweaty:
Instinctively she knew that it was “either-or.” Either she opened her mouth and let the mad tongue in- or he was going to, sure as God made little apples, grab her little apples.
“Billy Joe, if you have any feelin’ for me at all, and any hopes of squeezin’ my soft and pliant flesh this heady evenin’- you best stop and consider what I’m sayin’.”
And as he made rub-a-dub-dub in her tub-a-tub-tub, he chanced to look down, over her shoulder and over the lowered tailgate.
But he’d rather been with Bobbie Lee, playing “near-‘ems and feel-‘ems,” getting the hurts, being in love and wishing he was dead.
Additionally, Raucher is truly devoted to coming up with new euphemisms for various body parts:
He saw the ladies disembark, calm and ready for action, laying toilet water to their earlobes and pouring it down their Appalachian cleavages.
And had he not let her know what he was made of, shamelessly pressing against her belly all the love he could muster into his cylinder of sin?
SIN CYLINDER! Kill me now!
All of this groping comes to its climax (SEE WHAT I DID THERE!) at the annual Jamboree, at which Bobbie Lee intends to Give Herself Fully Over to Billy Joe.
However, the Jamboree takes a left turn when moonshine is smuggled onto the premises by Bobbie Lee’s brother and his nogoodnik friends, which results in a full-blown orgy breaking out.
Bobbie Lee’s parents see what’s coming down the line, and retreat back to the safety of their home, but the author chooses to stay with the orgy, describing a series of sex acts that I can only describe as “appealing to a very specific set of fetishes”. At one point the town drunk has relations with a bale of cotton.
Drunk and frustrated, Billy Joe attempts intercourse with a $5 prostitute from Yazoo City, brought in especially for the occasion, but is unable to complete the act. Humiliated, he runs away and hides in the woods for the next two weeks, emerging at night to spy on Bobbie Lee from the family chicken coop.
He finally appears to Bobbie Lee, gaunt and unshaven, having been subsisting on a diet of “onions, mostly” and insists that she meet with him on the Tallahatchie Bridge and consummate their love or else he will run away forever.
Apparently Bobbie Lee has a thing for oniony hoboes, because she agrees.
The following night they meet on the bridge, where they argue, and Benjamin accidently goes over the side. SYMBOLIZING THE END OF HER CHILDHOOD. Bold italic underline!
All of this is observed by Brother Taylor, the middle-aged Baptist minister who has been lusting after Bobbie Lee himself, biding his time for her to (super-barf) ripen into womanhood.
Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee retreat into the woods, where they attempt The Physical Act Of Love, but again Billy Joe comes up short (SEE WHAT I DID THERE, TOO!)
You see, Billy Joe has something weighing powerfully upon his conscience. Bobbie Lee assumes it is a dalliance with one of the Yazoo City hookers, of which she is very understanding about. But no! There is a twist!
And then, half dressed, he faced her, cruelly destroyed by the content of his own words.
“Bobbie Lee… I have been with a man.”
And the next morning he jumps off of the bridge.
Are we done with this thing? No, of course not. There is an epilogue that runs six chapters, in which Bobbie Lee is shunned by the entire town, who assumes that she is pregnant, which is what drove Billy Joe to kill himself. She finally agrees to leave town for a while in pretend-disgrace and let everyone imagine that she had the baby.
But! What about the mystery of Billy Joe’s love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name? In the movie it is revealed to be his boss at the cotton gin where he works (played in the movie by James Best, “The Dukes of Hazzard”’s Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane! Try to get that image out of your head!); however, in the novel, things are left much more ambiguous, with a suggestion that Billy Joe might have been boning Bobbie Lee’s older brother the whole time. So really, one mystery is solved, only to be replaced with another.
Finally, we have to awkwardly shoehorn in the last verse of the song:
James had married Becky Thompson and together they had set up a store in Tupelo.
In the spring a virus had gone around that no one could properly cope with. It claimed a dozen people, Papa being one of them. After that, Mama didn’t care to do much of anything except bake pies and make preserves.
And so it was summer again, a year having come and gone since the news of Billy Joe. And Bobbie Lee spent much of her time picking flowers and dropping them into the muddy waters beneath the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Shoddy Workmanship Or By Design? Department: While my copy of this book started out crisp and unread, reading it turned into a race to see if I could finish it before it fell apart.
I like to think that it was self-destructing from the embarrassment of its own existence.