The first two Flannery O’Connor stories that I read (re-read, actually) were “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People.” A few weeks ago, I read Ron Rash’s story “The Trusty” (The New Yorker, May 23, 2011); it reminded me of the former story for obvious reasons (a convict, a deserted country road, a moment of extreme and lethal violence) and of the latter for less obvious ones (Clem and Lucy are “good country people” exactly in the sick-and-twisted mode of Bible salesman Manley Pointer). Poking around on the internet led me to an interview with Rash in which he says that Flannery O’Connor is his favorite short story author…a blog comment that Rash is “in Flannery O’Connor territory” (like she owns the Depression South? Who says?)…and a review puzzling over how such a simple story with a predictable O. Henry-type twist at the end could have been picked up by The New Yorker.
Now I’m just a dumb old hillbilly from West Virginia, and a sailor at that. But I get a little bit annoyed when folks imply that southern equals simple. Sailors know that the important stuff is passed on at the water cooler – that’s why the nautical term for news is “scuttlebutt” – and so I suspected that something thematically complicated was going on at the well and at the spring seep in “The Trusty”.
I was raised in a Christian denomination that takes the Bible literally. Bible stories were pounded into my thick skull at least twice a week. For years, Sunday school meant reciting dozens of memorized Bible verses. Even though I switched denominations as an adult, those stories and the language are imprinted in strange ways in my gray matter. A story of Jesus at a well kept tickling the back of my mind when I read “The Trusty.” I wondered if it was significant. I’d bet that Ron Rash is no angry Catholic, like O’Connor, but he lives in the South (where Bibles are thumped with irritating frequency); and as a professor of English, he cannot be unaware of the religious themes in O’Connor’s stories. I wondered if he might be doing something thematically similar.
So I dragged the notebook in which I’d filed “The Trusty,” my old King James Bible with its concordance, and my handy-dandy Dictionary of Biblical Images out to the front porch. Anything I say about Biblical imagery below is from Dictionary of Biblical Images; I’m not bright enough to figure out all that imagery stuff for myself. Since Rash is a poet, and poets work with images, I pulled four images that I wanted to chew on out of the story’s title and first and last sentences, which are:
“They had been moving up the road a week without seeing another farmhouse, and the nearest well, at least the nearest the owner would let Sinkler use, was half a mile back.”
“His trembling fingers clasped the shirt’s top button, pushed it through the slit in the chambray.”
So the list of images I wanted to start with were: trust, road, well, clothing.
It’s possible to get an enjoyable read from “The Trusty” without going any farther than the dance of trust between Sinkler and Lucy. He has to win her trust if he’s to seduce her and to use her to escape; he also has to trust her not to betray him, to sell him out. This read of the story offers some nice opportunities to consider whom we trust, how we gain trust, and misplaced trust. But there’s more going on here. “Trust”, related to “faith” and “belief”, usually appears in the Bible as an imperative to trust God. In a passage familiar to many, Jesus says: “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10: 24-25, KJV). Sinkler has certainly been trusting in and seeking ill-gotten riches. The righteous live by faith (Romans 1:17). Faith – trust – is also essential to salvation. Jesus says: “…every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” The Dictionary of Biblical Images notes that while the Bible offers dozens of examples of trust and faith, there are few images of it, because “…faith is a uniquely human possibility. Nothing in the natural world, where most Biblical imagery originates, can serve as a suitable analogy for faith.” So, just from the title, it could be inferred that “The Trusty” is also about “correct” trust, faith, salvation, and that which is uniquely human.
The first image in the story is a road. The image of a road, path or way is “pervasive” in the Bible, with some eight hundred references, and “embodies a profound reflection on fundamental ethical themes, the conduct of God and humanity, and the character of God’s salvation….Walking on a path involves choosing to enter on the path and to pursue it in a given direction, progress toward a destination, making wise rather than foolish choices along the way, taking care for safety and not getting lost, and arriving at a goal.” Think The Divine Comedy and Pilgrim’s Progress here. The image of a road also “designate[s] the conduct of a person’s life and the results of that conduct….[it] captures the sense of the dynamic nature of human existence, which never stands still and in which individual choices are not self-contained but contribute to an overall pattern.” Finally, the path image can be used to denote salvation: “In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ person is uniquely identified as the way, providing access and fellowship with the Father: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6 NRSV). The image of the road is an invitation to consider Sinkler’s journey not just as a route to escape, starting on a deserted country lane, but as his life’s journey: the choices he has made that led him to prison, though as a “trusty”; the choices he will make in his attempt to escape; and the question of what kind of salvation or redemption he might expect to find at the journey’s end.
Hallelujah – we’re back to salvation again.
The image of the well is significant also, and not just because it’s the reason that Sinkler comes into contact with Lucy. Brothers and sisters, that well is not just a hole in the ground full of water that will rehydrate a ten-man chain gang. In the desert landscape of the Holy Land, wells were scarce, valuable, and essential to life. In the Bible, the well has deep metaphorical meaning. It symbolizes personal character (“the mouth of a righteous man is a well of life,” Prov. 10:11; “A righteous man who gives way to the wicked” is like “a muddied spring or a polluted well”). It’s interesting that Rash chose Sinkler as his protagonist: one is tempted to side with Lucy, to sympathize with the poverty that drives her and Clem to a desperate act. Not so fast, says I. Unlike O’Connor’s “Misfit,” Sinkler isn’t all that bad. He’s in prison for grifting, for white-collar crime. He has never carried a weapon, never murdered anyone, can’t quite bring himself to consider offing Lucy in any serious way, has never even had a weapon pointed at him. While Rash doesn’t comment on the quality of Lucy’s well water, he does mention that the water in the prison is “dingy enough to clog a strainer.”
Wells appear in the Bible in three contexts – as a place for: (1) encounters between the human and the supernatural; (2) a meeting of cultures; and (3) encounters between a man and a woman, often in which a man arriving from a journey to a distant land or his servant meets his betrothed (Abraham’s servant/Rebekah; Jacob/Rachel; and Moses/Zipporah). The story that was tickling the back of my mind – the meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman (the Gospel of John, Chapter Four) has elements of all three types of story. The Samaritan woman, an archetypal outcast, comes to Jacob’s Well at noon to avoid meeting others and encounters Jesus, a stranger in a hostile land who is tired from travel. She draws water for Jesus to drink – offering a gesture of hospitality to a stranger, one of the types of act that Jesus says will gain a man entry into Heaven (Matt. 25:36-43). In “The Trusty”, Lucy resembles the Samaritan woman only superficially: she never draws water for Sinkler, or offers him a drink. Instead, when she learns that the prisoners will not pay cash for the water, she demands that Sinkler “lose” one of the prison buckets. The significance here is not just that Lucy and Clem are so poor that a new bucket has value. Symbolically, the bucket is a vessel in which the life spirit (symbolized by the water) is carried. Lucy’s bucket is weak, corrupt with rust; Sinkler’s, which “winked silver as it swayed,” is shiny, valuable, and intact.
The well, fountain or spring in the Bible is also a metaphor for salvation. (Salvation again – I’m seeing a pattern here.) At Jacob’s Well, Jesus uses this metaphor to reveal himself to the Samaritan woman: “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14). I’m to go out on a limb here and say that Rash is inviting the reader to consider in what way Sinkler might resemble Jesus – what an escaping grifter with some not-so-nice plans for poor Lucy might tell us, through his story, about the Christian journey and salvation.
Springs were particularly valued in the desert, seen as “living” water. Metaphorically, a spring stands for abundance. The Promised Land is “a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills” (Deuteronomy 8:7). Once Sinkler and Lucy depart on the path – a crooked path, not the “straight and narrow way” – to the Promised Land of California, which Lucy says she has heard is like Paradise, the only source of water Sinkler sees are “spring seeps” – anyone who has hiked in the Smokies has stepped over these trickles of water that leak from rocks on the mountainside. In “The Trusty” these seeps, unlike the deep springs of the Promised Land, are shallow. Sinkler is indeed headed for Paradise – but he’s not going to the Promised Land.
“Springs of life” are a Biblical metaphor for a person’s inner identity; they flow from the heart (Proverbs 4:23). The heart-shaped locket that Lucy wears gives the reader the bottom line on her inner identity. She claims it was her mother’s (hearkening back to Sinkler’s earlier thought that a con man could “tell a story about being in town because of an ailing mother, and you were the cat’s pajamas”), says that it’s pure silver, and offers to sell it. Sinkler jokes, “And all this time I thought you had a heart of gold, Lucy Sorrels.” He is more right than he knows. Jewelry symbolizes not only wealth, but power – and Lucy, with her tarnished heart, holds the power in their relationship.
Finally, the spring in the Bible is a metaphor for salvation. Springs in the wilderness could save the thirsty traveller, and the prophet promised that a merciful God would guide the redeemed there (Isaiah 49:10). It is no accident that the climactic, redemptive event of “The Trusty” – the event which provides the final evaluation of Sinkler’s character and what he has to tell us about faith – takes place at one of these spring seeps. Sinkler stops early into his journey with Lucy to drink from a spring seep, which is so shallow that he has to lean over and support himself with his hand. Near the journey’s end, he stops again to drink from a spring seep, sees the print of his own hand in the sand, and realizes that Lucy has led him in a circle rather than over the ridge to Asheville.
This handprint, in addition to being the catalyst for Sinkler’s epiphany that his trust in Lucy was misplaced, also has Biblical significance. The hand enables theft – a thief in some parts of the Middle East even today may expect to lose his right hand. The phrase “by the hand of” is a phrase of agency – Sinkler is the agent of his own destruction, and has been done in “by his own hand,” by the choice he has made to trust Lucy. That he has wet his hand in the spring suggests that Sinkler has been cleansed of his sin, and in Biblical times handwashing was also an announcement of innocence (as when Pontius Pilate washed his hands to symbolize his innocence in the condemnation of Jesus). In the end, suggests Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, the “hand reflects the wishes and will of the entire person.” Sinkler’s sins, Rash suggests, will be forgiven. Sinkler is going to Heaven.
This is made clear in Sinkler’s final act. He knows that Clem and Lucy will kill him. He is too tired to run, and like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he knows that he cannot escape his fate. His final act is to remove Clem’s shirt, because Clem and Lucy are poor and he knows that they will want the shirt back. In Biblical terms, being undressed is a humiliation: Jesus’ clothing was stripped from him, and because clothing was as valuable then as it was to Clem and Lucy, it was divided among the soldiers who crucified him. To divest oneself of clothing is an act of humility: Sinkler has not only been humbled by Lucy, who orders him to take off his shoes before the journey; he chooses to humble himself by taking off Clem’s shirt. And in his decision to humble himself and to give clothing back to the poor, he guarantees his entry into Heaven:
“For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?….Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 26:35-38, 40).
Sinkler’s final act is the ultimate gesture of faith, an explication of the deeper meaning of trust. Even an animal as smart as my dog is only capable of giving me something (a paw-shake, for example) in exchange for something else (a pat, a treat). Only a human can give with no expectation of return. And trust in its truest form requires that, like Christ on the cross, one must open one’s heart and give – perhaps even one’s life – without expectation of return. Even a petty crook like Sinkler is capable of that kind of redemptive act.