The Regular, the new novel by Dave Buckhout, is a philosophical novel, and its main protagonist, Marvin Goodspeed, is a philosopher. That said, what is the philosophy of this modern day southern Cynic? And what, ultimately, is the book’s (and Buckhout’s) take on him?
Like the Existentialists, the central tenet of Goodspeed’s life is Freedom. In his case, freedom from societal constraint to be himself, to live exactly as he pleases, to destroy his life if he wants to. A repeating refrain throughout the book is the one-word phrase Freedom! I see this as both freedom from, and freedom to. Freedom from: social mores, decorum, corporate drone-ness. Freedom to: Be rude, be drunk all the time, to fix up a crumbling old house, to say whatever he pleases, to wander around and think to himself and rage against the place he’s from and what he perceives as its tragic attachment to an obscene past coupled with its increasingly glossy, corporate, gentrifying present.
A large part of Goodspeed’s life and art consists of interrogating the myth of the South, both Old and New. No one and no thing comes out looking very good as a result of this inquiry. In fact, as Buckhout remarks in an interview, Goodspeed himself is not immune: “Even though he can consciously rid himself of old myths, he seems only able to do so by substituting old for new. The contradictions themselves have become instinctual.”
There are of course plenty of instinctual contradictions in the concept (and reality) of the New South. But there’s a catch: in one sense the book is not set in The South. Rather, it’s set in Springvale, a very specific neighborhood in a large city that happens to be in a southern state – an old, intown neighborhood that is an urban refuge for hippies, artists, drunks, punks, junkies, old-timers, and (lately, ca.1997) smart urban professionals.
The novel is a celebration of the local and particular. The circumscribed world of Marvin Goodspeed – his own small patch of the urban south – is described by Buckhout in loving detail, from the oppressive heat and humidity of a Georgia summer to the tree root, upended, hexagonal-cement tiles that compose the hazardous sidewalks of Springvale, and which send our drunken hero sprawling more than once. In this respect it resembles A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s love letter to New Orleans, and his comic anti-hero Ignatius J. Riley.
The novel can also be read as an updated Battle of Atlanta. Rather than North vs South, it’s Marvin Goodspeed vs. . . . well, you pick it: “The Man,” History, Myth, The South, Himself, Alcohol.
Ah, yes – alcohol. The book is, among many other things, an extended meditation on alcoholism. For Goodspeed, alcohol is a way of life. On the one hand he’s an old-school drunk, dragging his shabby ass around the streets, a real “character” for the suburban tourists that come to Springvale for some big city thrills to gawk at. But alcohol is also a metaphor – for the mental and emotional demons that torture Goodspeed, for his stubborn refusal to compromise (Freedom!), for his losing battles, for his very own Lost Cause.
Because he’s aware of the South’s sordid history and is damned to see it all around him in the present tense, one of the main goals of our protagonist and his friends and drinking compatriots at the bar is to get outside of Time. Time is an illusion, time is the enemy, time is the thing to be transcended. Buckhout explains that the tale is a “commentary on just how destructive and just how much work / sacrifice is required to uphold untruths, or half-truths, or outright lies, myths, legends that you like better than the hard real. This develops almost in the background of The Regular—and is most obvious in the root ‘purpose’ of why he drinks: to defeat time. To deny time its ability to define the past, present, and future, he must put in the work, sacrifice, give his all.”
But no matter how much time is sacrificed you always eventually return to the here and now – and it turns out that it IS the South after all. So there is the very palpable sense of the past in the novel, the deeply felt knowledge of how things came to be the way they are. Goodspeed (and, one suspects, Buckhout) is a fan of the Populist analysis of class and race exploitation in the making of the New South – the effort by the powerful to pit poor people (white and black) against each other, working people against eggheads, stirring them all up about race and distracting them from the fact that they’re all being screwed by The Man. It is a way of life that has its roots in the slave-ocracy of the Old South, was expressed after the Civil War as Jim Crow, and in The Regular is manifesting as the global corporate oligarchy.
As the novel’s narrator observes about Goodspeed, “In the normal course of his abnormal efforts—when the chips are down, the odds at their longest—he needs only recall the acrid history of those used as cannon fodder by those others that stacked fortunes on bent and breaking backs, the engineered humiliation of the common agrarians kept down by the plantation aristocracy, by damned Yankee aggression, by the scalawags and their carpetbags, by the New South Bourbons—by the Gilded fucking Age.”(p.139)
Goodspeed particularly admires Gordon Patrick Woodruff, a local Populist leader and thinker who lived in Springdale at the turn of the last century. In fact, the novel ends with Marvin fixing up and moving into Woodruff’s dilapidated house. Is this symbolic for an updating of an older myth? Well, not exactly. What Goodspeed admires about Woodruff is that he doesn’t buy the myth: doesn’t buy the romantic Southern bullshit that is used by the rich and powerful to cheat and exploit poor whites, and to keep blacks “in their place,” i.e. doubly exploited.
In the end the novel circles back on itself and the tale begins anew – different, and yet maddeningly, comfortingly, the same. Goodspeed returns to the streets and favorite bar to bear his cross, to rage against The Man, and to be a living exemplar, performing in public what it means to truly possess Freedom.
But – does he truly possess it? Or is that just another illusion, another myth? The novel is ambiguous in answering this fundamental question. And really, it’s probably the only honest conclusion one can draw from this strange, tragic and yet (somehow) uplifting story.
Editor’s Note: Dave Buckhout, the author of The Regular, is a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, historical studies and poetry and lives on the hip east-side of Atlanta with his beautiful wife, dogs, cats, guitars and 1000s of well-worn books. You can read an excerpt from his novel at The Write Launch and learn more about Dave and the novel at his website davebuckhout.com.