When I was introduced to the work of award-winning novelist Guy Owen (1925-1981), I found an author whose subject matter captivated my attention.
The Bladen County native grew up on a tobacco farm and later earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After earning his Ph.D., Owen taught at various higher education institutions, including N.C. State University, while becoming a published poet and novelist.
His rural childhood experiences always were fresh in his mind and informed his fiction. The routine, Depression-era experiences, such as accompanying relatives to auctions, working in the field, or performing daily chores, may seem insignificant, but memories of those activities provided Owen with a wealth of literary material.
Owen’s two most popular novels were The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man (1965) and Journey for Joedel (1970). The professor considered the latter to be his best novel. For it, he won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Journey for Joedel is about a sharecropping father and his son, Joedel, hauling tobacco to town, selling it, and returning home with their earnings. It doesn’t sound comparable to Homer’s Odyssey, nor am I claiming it to be, but much happened along the way to and from the market. As Sally Buckner, a former Guy Owen student, describes Joedel’s trip in the introduction of the novel’s 2010 reprint: “Every incident rings with moral complexity that challenges young Joedel’s certainty about right and wrong.”
Indeed, the journey is one of character maturation for the 13-year-old. Joedel, for instance, wrestles with whether he should cull rotting tobacco leaves and lose some profit, or gamble that buyers will overlook the few, bad leaves so that the quality of his good leaves remains unquestioned and attracts more potential buyers. Joedel, whose mother is part Lumbee, also deals with positive and negative remarks concerning his racial heritage.
The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man was my introduction to Owen. More exactly, it was the 1967 film of the same name starring George C. Scott. In the movie, there is an unforgettable and zany car chase that wreaks havoc on a small, North Carolina town. The main character, Mordecai Jones, M.B.S., C.S., D.D., brags about his self-styled, advanced degrees that stand for “Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing, and Dirty-Dealing.”
The older drifter travels the Southeast, swindling people out of their cash and stealing — excuse me, borrowing — cars. Although the movie was filmed in Kentucky, the story’s setting is in rural “Cape Fear County,” North Carolina — a place similar to the area where Owen grew up.
The nickel-and-dime swindler mentors an AWOL serviceman, Curley, and tells him early on: “You can’t cheat an honest man.” With that in mind, Mordecai lures others into thinking that they can cheat him or Curley. When in a predicament, Mordecai is willing to deceive honest people. Curley, however, eventually reveals that there is some good in people.
Like many Southern writers, Owen uses his own past experiences and environment to provide material for his fiction. Recall William Faulkner’s use of Yoknapatawpha County, a fictitious location based on the real Lafayette County, Miss. The result is that the fiction has a local flavor, describing the sights, sounds, and folkways of a certain place.
Many have argued that all art is rooted, but the best artists know how to use the particular to transcend the local and discuss universal concepts. Owen’s work is particularly regional, and in many ways local, but his fictional Cape Fear County offers a lens through which we can see broader themes and a bigger world.
Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project.