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The Haunted Hillbilly

by Derek McCormack

At 124 generously spaced pages, The Haunted Hillbilly – Derek McCormack’s first novel – demonstrates with style and sardonic wit that it’s not about the length, it’s all in how you use it. McCormack, the author of the short-story collections Dark Rides and Wish Book, as well as half of the Toronto Book Award-nominated Wild Mouse and various small-press publications, is an artisan who prefers working in miniature and consistently produces bijoux-like texts of Byzantine complexity.

Halfway through The Haunted Hillbilly, the book presents the reader with a perfect analogy for McCormack’s creative process. Nudie, the novel’s gay vampiric western couturier narrator, renders down jagged bone splinters from the broken shin of a shopgirl that he’s just injured, lets the essence set in a dollhouse muffin pan, then polishes the resulting discs into bone sequins to adorn a garment for his object of lust, an up-and-coming country singer called “Hank.”

Though Hillbilly is a “phantasmagoria” and “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental,” the “Hank” it describes isn’t far off the mark from Hank Williams: a self-proclaimed sadist, dead in the back of a limo at 29 from an overdose of either heroin or a sexual stimulant for cattle called Ampheniamide, depending on whose story you believe.

Nudie the narrator also bears a strong resemblance to a flesh-and-blood human, one Nudie Cohen (b. Nudka Kohn), owner and operator for 37 years of Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors, and the creator of “Nudie suits” for Hank Williams, Gram Parsons’ infamous white suit adorned with sequined marijuana leaves, opium poppies, peyote, buttons and amphetamines, and even Elvis’s $10,000 gold lamé suit. (To my knowledge, Cohen was neither gay nor a vampire, but as director John Ford used to say, when you have a choice between printing facts and printing the legend, print the legend).

The quality of McCormack’s prose, as usual, is superior – dense, precise, highly evocative. If James Ellroy was gay and from Peterborough, Ontario, he’d be Derek McCormack. This book is not really an alternate queer history of Nashville so much as an unflinching look at aspects of our cultural icons that we choose to ignore. The Haunted Hillbilly runs through the Country Music Hall of Fame with a baby sledgehammer, smashing all of the prettified displays that mask the somewhat grittier and uglier face of country music – what critic Nick Tosches calls the “twisted roots” of rock and roll.

Novels like The Haunted Hillbilly make it difficult to pretend that the veneer of “pastness” that our culture maintains, not only about country music but about the bucolic world portrayed in Canadian realist fiction, is still intact. Not that McCormack shirks his CanCon duties. There’s an amazing alchemical change in the very last line of the book, where, among various other changes of state, by virtue of one of McCormack’s ultracompressed puns, “Hank” (whose patronym is never specified) actually becomes a Canadian country music star: Hank Snow. How, exactly, that transformation comes about, I leave as a mystery for the reader to explore.