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The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart (2008)

by Glenn Taylor

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15114144,807 (3.64)11
There's little room in this world for a moral man. Meet Early "Trenchmouth" Taggart, a man born and orphaned in 1903, a man nicknamed for his lifelong oral affliction. His boyhood is shaped by the Widow Dorsett, a strong mountain woman who teaches him to hunt and survive the taunts of others. In the hills of southern West Virginia, a boy grows up fast. Trenchmouth sips moonshine, handles snakes, pleasures women, and masters the rifle - a skill that lands him in the middle of the West Virginia coal wars. A teenaged union sniper, Trenchmouth is exiled to the backwoods of Appalachia's foothills, where he spends his years running from the past. But trouble will sniff a man down, and an outlaw will eventually run home. Here, Trenchmouth Taggart's story, like the best ballads, etches its mark deep upon the memory.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
First novel by this author. I feel like I know the land of West-By-God, now. And like Trenchmouth was a friend of mine. ( )
  KittyCunningham | Apr 26, 2021 |
The disappointment of Glenn Taylor's The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart shows that sometimes worthy literary experiments can fail, and eccentricity cannot always pass for originality. Trenchmouth is a strange and sometimes gnarly ramble through backwoods Americana, following the titular character from his birth in 1903 through the moonshine years and coal-mine wars in West Virginia and up until the present day.

Pitched as an Appalachian Forrest Gump, Taylor's attempt at an old-timey tall-tale doesn't really work. The early stuff, up to and including the violent plight of the coal miners in the 1920s, is good stuff, but Taylor then breezes through the rest of Trenchmouth's life. Significant periods of solitude as a mountain man are delivered hastily, and once we get into the 1950s all the magic is gone. It is often difficult, from this point on, to know which decade it is meant to be in the story, and most of the side characters are sketchily created. Even the protagonist, by this time, seems uprooted in his character. Gump-like encounters with famous American figures are half-hearted; President Kennedy, the most prominent such encounter, is drawn blandly and with no authenticity or sense of occasion. Whereas Gump was in the thick of everything, to great effect, Taylor only occasionally (and blithely) refers to the great historical motions of America in his own story, and they all take place elsewhere.

In truth, the storytelling is not all that great. The plot is scattershot, the characters don't shine and literary depths are hinted at but not sounded. The 'tall tale' structure is not delivered well: if an 'unreliable narrator' device is to be used in a story, there ought to be clues for the reader in order to make it engaging, or it needs to be so completely outlandish or in such command of its language that you enjoy the ride. Trenchmouth does neither and, frankly, the book unravels.

There are some good moments. As a comment on how outsiders perceive the 'hill people' of Appalachia, the visit of the eugenicist whose leg Trenchmouth pulls is rather pointed and amusing (pg. 85). The moment towards the end where the old Trenchmouth realises the hills of West Virginia from his youth are gone, the tops of the mountains levelled out by strip-miners (pg. 266), manages to summon up some pathos.

However, while the book's messages are worthy ones – the importance of friends and family and of music's power to heal (pg. 251), the broad refutation of the bad images people conjure "when they heard the words 'West Virginia'" (pg. 161) – these messages are handed to rather than created for the reader. When the old Trenchmouth writes that he "recognized the uselessness of most things considered useful today, and the demise of most things once considered grand" (pg. 300), it doesn't really land with a great deal of grace, even if we can objectively appreciate the sentiment.

Ultimately, despite some neat touches, the book can't fulfil its ambitious premise. It's a tall tale that topples over, and after its strong opening part it never really brings the reader along with any of its characters or its ideas. The book skates across the surface of its deep territory, and it can never really bring itself to navigate its strange dimensions. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Mar 13, 2021 |
Review: The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart by M. Glenn Taylor. 01/28/2017

Glenn Taylor’s style of writing shows how good he is as a storyteller. He wrote the book in four sections from childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Taylor has captured the essence of historical time but also of a culture of a small town when coal miners and families help each other, roughens that know it all, isolated mountain people, and some adventurous hillbilly’s.

Within this story Trenchmouth Taggart was named after his tooth breaking disease brought on a week after he was born. With very little schooling he does acquires and perfects the skills needed to live in the back-country and survive. There was a lot of dysfunction and poverty in his life but also some goodness and happiness. Taggart was an interesting man that kept me reading to the last page. As Taggart aged he accumulated many skills. In one scene he was a snake handler, the next a sniper, a one-time inventor, a prize-winning writer, woodsman, newspaper man, and a harmonica player in a band.

Taggart greatest encounters was meeting John Kennedy during the 1960 campaign, jamming with Chuck Berry in his earlier rock period and talking with Joseph Mitchell a New York writer comparing similarities and differences in their written notes. There were times when Taggart isolated himself in hidden cavities he built because he felt agoraphobia around people and another time when he was on the run from authority figures. At times Taggart would change his name to accommodate his situation.

There is so much about Taggart’s life, which the author organized so brilliantly and so fascinating that I couldn’t put it down. I thought it was a wonderful story….
  Juan-banjo | Jan 31, 2018 |
First novel by this author. I feel like I know the land of West-By-God, now. And like Trenchmouth was a friend of mine. ( )
  Kitty.Cunningham | Jul 19, 2017 |
Glenn Taylor has written an engaging addition to the "Americana" genre, that successfully avoids common pitfalls yet still brings some originality to the table.

Trenchmouth Taggart is born in Virginia hills, and his life will encompass the better part of a century. Union ally, crack shot, writer, musician and more, his tale is taller than Robert Wadlow.

I enjoy this Twain-esque sub-genre, but there's no denying its population often stumbles under the weight of burdensome prose that's all shine and no structure. Taylor, thankfully, does a brisk trade in simile and his writing is probably one of the defining pleasures of the book. He never sacrifices accuracy for colour - and he skirts cliche with facility.

I suppose it also helps that - for all the hyperbole of these folk tales - he has a keen insight in people, and isn't afraid to root parts of his story in quieter realities.

Indeed, this inner contrast, an understanding that even in stories like this, some things need to be smaller as well as larger than life, kept my interest towards the end as the narrative started to peter out. By that stage, I was attached to Trenchmouth and the other characters. I can't deny, I probably would have enjoyed a novel that dealt more thoroughly with just *one* chapter of Trenchmouth's fabled life, but these books don't offer that, and you have to take them as they are.

Short, sharp, fun, and well-written, you could do a lot worse. ( )
  patrickgarson | Sep 1, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
Taylor demonstrates a flair for episodic narrative as he pans through Trenchmouth’s long, lonely flight from the law. Finely imagined stretches describing life in the Appalachian wilderness alternate with wry, brisk incursions into history
 
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.
 
"The boy was full of rotten teeth but his eye was keen and sure," we're told, which latter sentiment might describe the book itself. For the scope of ambition within these pages is commendable, and if it flags just a little in the final third (the ballad form should always recruit brevity as its collaborator) it would be churlish to carp. For Trenchmouth is a dervish cat o'nine tails, which in its confidence can leave one gasping, as in the section where the shape-shifting protagonist, at once an inventor, "cunnilinguist" and sniper, fetches up in the coal wars of West Virginia.
 
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There's little room in this world for a moral man. Meet Early "Trenchmouth" Taggart, a man born and orphaned in 1903, a man nicknamed for his lifelong oral affliction. His boyhood is shaped by the Widow Dorsett, a strong mountain woman who teaches him to hunt and survive the taunts of others. In the hills of southern West Virginia, a boy grows up fast. Trenchmouth sips moonshine, handles snakes, pleasures women, and masters the rifle - a skill that lands him in the middle of the West Virginia coal wars. A teenaged union sniper, Trenchmouth is exiled to the backwoods of Appalachia's foothills, where he spends his years running from the past. But trouble will sniff a man down, and an outlaw will eventually run home. Here, Trenchmouth Taggart's story, like the best ballads, etches its mark deep upon the memory.

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