The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, By M Glenn Taylor

He's the king of the hillbillies
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The Independent Culture

Hillbillies, when they appear in fiction or film, are generally treated as toothless, drooling figures of fun, with only Deliverance to give a darker tone. In Early "Trenchmouth" Taggart, however, M Glenn Taylor has created a marvellous, jump-off-the-page character. Far bigger than his lowly West Virginia origins, he also shines a strong light on the history of backwoods America.

Taggart is a defiantly incredible creation, a "one-time inventor, snake handler, cunnilinguist, sniper, woodsman, harmonica man, and newspaperman". He gets his nickname for the condition he picks up as a two-month-old baby when his mother, convinced he's the devil's work, throws him into the icy river. He's saved by the Widow Dorsett, brewer of the state's finest moonshine, who brings him up in her mud-patched cabin.

What follows, over Taggart's 108-year-long life – right up to the present year – is impossible to summarise. Thankfully, it's easy as anything to read. Taylor takes Trenchmouth through an outsider's boyhood to a glorious youth, as he puts his hunting skills at the service of Mingo County's striking coal miners. This is the where Taylor's historical sense pays off so sweetly, as he introduces such real-life figures as Sid Hatfield, the local police chief who sided with the miners and was assassinated. Other cameos include Chuck Berry and Hank Williams.

There is more to the book than a sewing together of historical incidents. The sections describing Trenchmouth's years in the mountains, hiding out from the law, or heartbreak, turn him into a fabulous action man. "He found the cougar's freshest scent pile and relieved his own bladder on top of it. Then he was back to fast-tracking, wide-open running... He landed silently on the outside balls of his feet and rolled inward. He became the cat he tracked." The writing is limber, and the real life it bundles up into its freakish, charismatic character make this a genuine success that admirers of John Irving – and others, too – will surely enjoy.

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