Book Review: Hillbilly Rich, by Jeff Kerr, reviewed by Graham Rae

Whilst con­tem­po­rary tech­nol­o­gy-over­loaded soci­ety may have cre­at­ed a vapid and tran­sient instant­ly-obso­lete fad-app-and-gad­get obsessed age, the human heart in con­flict with itself is an eter­nal and unchang­ing part of life and lit­er­a­ture. This is tru­ism is acknowl­edged by writer Jeff Kerr, whose fine, poet­ic, inter­net-and-TV-free tales in this vol­ume evoke a more human and con­nect­ed and inter­est­ing time and tide of human existence.

Hill­bil­ly Rich show­cas­es six short sto­ries set in the Appalachi­an moun­tains on the Ken­tucky and Vir­ginia bor­der. The book’s cov­er neat­ly rep­re­sents the major over­ar­ch­ing themes of the fic­tion inside: alco­hol and mon­ey and pills and south­ern dis­com­fort. Kerr pop­u­lates his writ­ings with sin­ners and win­ners and losers and life abusers and drug users and brawlers and bar-crawlers, effort­less­ly and poet­i­cal­ly evok­ing his char­ac­ters in his half-dozen utter­ly human tales of weary-cum-ener­gized woe and mur­der and sui­cide and redemp­tion and damna­tion. If this sounds grim, it’s real­ly not: the por­traits paint­ed here are life-affirm­ing and dis­arm­ing in equal mea­sure too.

That old crime reli­gion is invoked a few times dur­ing the sto­ries, and there is a kind of qua­si-reli­gious feel­ing to some of the work (hard­ly sur­pris­ing giv­en the geo­graph­i­cal region it hails from), but not of a preachy kind. Self-taught Kerr’s writ­ing is almost anal­o­gous to the sketch of an ex coalmin­er in the pages, a man who hears the soft mov­ing call of his God to make him cre­ate beau­ti­ful works of art in cel­e­bra­tion of all existence.

The writer tells us in the fas­ci­nat­ing sev­enth and final piece in the short book, an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece explain­ing the title (‘hill­bil­ly rich’ is a phrase that means you are not finan­cial­ly sol­vent but have enough to get by), that his work is a cel­e­bra­tion and lay­ing down of fam­i­ly lines by some­one not born into a tra­di­tion­al book­worm fam­i­ly: “Peo­ple like me aren’t meant to be lit­er­ary peo­ple. My dad drove a fork­lift in a ware­house and my moth­er worked in a plas­tics fac­to­ry. Both of my grand­fa­thers were coal miners.”

So Kerr’s work mines rich black gold coal­burst­ing seams of harsh­ly-and-vibrant­ly-burn­ing fam­i­ly fos­sil fuel to feed a bright blaz­ing pure-heart con­fla­gra­tion sto­ry mosa­ic: a man seeks to redeem him­self by releas­ing a cap­tive wolf that will car­ry his image “in the hard run of a red wolf’s mem­o­ry.” A truck­er com­mit­ting inad­ver­tent infi­deli­ty has to defend him­self against the hus­band of the man whose wife he was unknow­ing­ly sleep­ing with. A washed-up coun­try and west­ern star (and all his creator’s sto­ries would make a fine C&W tune, drip­ping blood and whiskey and pain and emo­tion­al chaos) decides to take dras­tic action in a painful mar­i­tal mat­ter. And, in the sto­ry that is, to my mind the best in the col­lec­tion, two socio­path­ic teenagers point­less­ly shoot hors­es in a cor­ral just for the sick and evil and despair­ing fun of it.

The last line of the lat­ter tale (appar­ent­ly unfor­tu­nate­ly based on a true occur­rence) also neat­ly encap­su­lates a com­mon con­stant thread of Kerr’s prose: home­spun honky­tonk wis­dom mixed with beau­ti­ful poet­ry. “There’s a lot of mean­ness in the world and you can’t trust fences to keep it out,” he intones, in a per­fect suck­er-punch­line to the hor­rors that have just pre­ced­ed this piece of sim­ple philo­soph­i­cal truth. The coun­try singer has a “rat­tling up all night and repent­ing in the morn­ing” voice. A child scared by an appari­tion basks in famil­iar fam­i­ly safe­ty of “unspo­ken love that chained through gen­er­a­tions of blood and strug­gle to keep the shad­ows from becom­ing hard­er and more dan­ger­ous things.”

In the tit­u­lar essay, the writer tells us that his grand­fa­ther would tell him “tales involv­ing ani­mals and their mys­te­ri­ous ways, strange myth­i­cal hill beasts, ‘hants and vio­lent events torn straight out of the death bal­lads my Paw-Paw would tell me. Oth­er sto­ries were told by my par­ents, uncles and aunts on boozy evenings.” It seems thus that Kerr’s tales are just his way of extend­ing his 180-proof moon­shin­ing fam­i­ly oral tra­di­tion beyond unfa­mil­iar famil­ial gath­er­ings and inject­ing it straight into the blood­stream of sedate lit­er­ary Amer­i­ca, often using ani­mal sim­i­les to do so; peo­ple are com­pared to rac­coons and fox­es and snakes, with the cru­el mys­ti­cal beau­ty of nature in all its red-in-tooth-and-claw gory glo­ry play­ing just as an impor­tant part in the tales as the char­ac­ters themselves.

The sto­ries in Hill­bil­ly Rich seem almost anachro­nis­tic in a way; they could have been writ­ten any­time over the course of the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, pret­ty much. But that’s just the point here: peo­ple are peo­ple, and great sto­ries about the human race scratch­ing and claw­ing itself and draw­ing con­fused not-coag­u­lat­ing moun­tain-run­ning blood will be around for the rest of the human race’s exis­tence. Kerr is a fine, emerg­ing tal­ent; his sim­ple, direct, pure, hon­est, seem­ing­ly effort­less­ly-honed tales could teach many a more expe­ri­enced writer what a true sea­son in exis­ten­tial hell or dazed prose heav­en is like with­out break­ing a sweat.


Gra­ham Rae is a Scots­man now liv­ing in Chica­go. He has been pub­lished for over 25 years in venues includ­ing Amer­i­can Cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er, Cine­fan­tas­tique, Film Threat, 3am​magazine​.com, and Real​i​tys​tu​dio​.com. He had a nov­el pub­lished in 2011 by Cre­ation Books, Sound­proof Future Scot­land, and he will nev­er see a pen­ny from it. He’s not bit­ter. Bit­ter is for lemons.

Jeff Kerr cur­rent­ly lives in Mil­wau­kee, WI. He has deep roots in the south­ern Appalachi­an moun­tains of the Ken­tucky and Vir­ginia bor­der coun­try. His work has appeared in Appalachi­an Her­itage, Now and Then, Hard­boiled, Plots with Guns, Hard­luck Sto­ries, Crim­i­nal Class Review and oth­ers. He has been a fea­tured read­er at Book Soup, San Quentin Prison among oth­er venues. His short sto­ry col­lec­tion, Hill­bil­ly Rich, can be ordered direct­ly at JeffKerr1965@​gmail.​com.

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One Response to Book Review: Hillbilly Rich, by Jeff Kerr, reviewed by Graham Rae

  1. Sheldon Lee Compton says:

    Great review. Look­ing for­ward to read­ing it as soon as pos­si­ble. Sounds like my kind of stuff. Eager for FCAC to have a look at my col­lec­tion, The Same Ter­ri­ble Storm, that I think falls in line with Jeff's type of work. Con­grats to you, Jeff, on what I am sure will be a fine book!

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