I was about 10 pages into The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers when I wondered whether I was reading Rogers or Mark Twain. My question was answered at the end of this comic, crazy novel in the author’s note: Rogers credits Twain as a major influence.
The novel falls within a sub-genre of literature known as “southwestern humor” that existed in the 19thcentury and included Twain as well as authors like George Washington Harris. It’s funny, irreverent, and often downright rude. It also influenced a considerable number of writers in the 20thand 21stcenturies including William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and even Cormac McCarthy. A classic of southwestern humor, almost a throwback to its origins, in Donald Harington’s 1975 The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks.
The Charlatan’s Boy, published in 2010,is a tale of a con man’s travels through the large (and fictitious) island of Corenwald. If the people, towns, and villages resemble the American West of the early 19thcentury, well, it’s likely they were meant to. The boy of the title is Grady, who serves both as a main character and the narrator. He’s been with Floyd (or “Perfessor Floyd”) for as long as he can remember, traveling from town to town with “the ugliest boy in the world” act. Grady, of course, serves as the star, and even Grady admits the title is well-deserved.
When Grady loses an ugliest boy contest, he and Floyd both realistically acknowledge that no one will want to see the world’s second most ugly boy, and Floyd has to forage for a new act and a new con. He decides upon creating a Feechie scare.
The Feechies are a – perhaps –mythical people who live in the swamp named for them in southern Corenwald. Floyd, aided by Grady, begins a quiet rumor campaign, claiming that the Feechies have had it with “civilized people” and are about to start a war. Floyd has a gift of understanding human nature, and he knows that no right-thinking person will believe in Feechies, until they do. And his proof will be Grady, trotted out as a Feechie captured years before. The campaign works better than Floyd and Grady could hope – and then it works too well.
Rogers is also the author of The Wilderking Trilogy: , , and ; and three non-fiction works, , , and . He received his undergraduate degree from Furman University and his Ph.D. degree in 17thcentury literature from Vanderbilt. He lives in Nashville.
The Charlatan’s Boy is a wild, funny romp of a novel, with scenes as crazy as Twain’s buffalo climbing a tree in Roughing It. But it’s also a story about relationships, people’s willingness to be duped, and a boy’s hunger for belonging.
Top photograph by Linnaea Mallette via . Used with permission.