“You got a problem with that, you let me know right now, and I’ll give you a ride straight back to your daddy.”
Written with a growing sense of menace, Hard Twisted from author C. Joseph Greaves is based on a true story and concerns homeless drifter, Dillard Garrett and his 13-year-old daughter, Lucile. It’s 1934, and homeless people travelling across America looking for work are a common sight, but what happens to Lucile is unusual. She becomes involved in the 1935 “skeleton murder” case and subsequent trial.
Lucile’s story is interrupted by transcripts of the trial, so questions about Lucile’s complicity are followed by the fictionalized versions of events. Leading questions regarding Lucile’s relationship with the accused murderer, for example, insinuate that this 13-year-old girl went along for the ride, but the narrative tells another story–a story of deprivation, a subsistence existence, and a complete lack of social agencies for a homeless 13-year-old to apply to for aid. Weigh that against the promise of a permanent home, baths and regular meals.
The novel wastes little time showing the dire circumstances in which Lucile Garrett and her father Dillard are living when they meet a persuasive drifter named Clint Dillard who gives the Garretts a ride in his slat-sided Ford Truck which is packed with gamecocks.
The man looked across her lap and studied her father’s shoes. He said his name was Palmer, and that he was a Texan, and a cowboy. He wore sharp sideburns and a clean Resistol hat cocked forward over pallid eyes gone violet in the fading glow of sunset, and she could see that he was small–perhaps no taller than she–and that something fiercely defiant, something feral, was in his smallness.
Although Palmer is crafty about it, it’s soon obvious that giving a ride to the Dillards was not motivated by altruism but by lust for 13-year-old Lucile, but the question becomes how to separate father and daughter? This is achieved in subtle, sly stages and coated with promises to a desperate couple who have no prospects for anything better.
Written with an authenticity that seeps from the pages, we feel the half-starved Dillards spending endless sunbeaten days on the dusty roads and sleeping rough at night, as author C. Joseph Greaves very effectively recreates a hellish period in American history:
They’d built a fire in the lee of the ruined house, and her father squatted before it stirring red flannel hash with a spoon. The temperature had dropped with the sun and she wore a mackinaw now like a mantle while he sat on his heels and rubbed his hands and warmed them over the skillet, the tumbled walls around them shifting and changing, moving inward and the outward again as though breathing in the soft glow like a living thing.
With passages such as that, there’s an unspoken question ‘how long can the Dillards survive?’ so initially it seems like a stroke of luck when they meet Clint Palmer and he wants to go into business with Lucile’s father. But at the same time, there’s a growing sense of unease.
For the rest of the story, well you have to read the novel. At the end of the book there’s a section ‘author’s notes and acknowledgements’ in which the author explains how he became interested in the Skeleton Murder Case when hiking in John’s Canyon, San Juan County, Utah. Through a history of the region, the author heard about the Garretts and Palmer along with the disclaimer that there are several versions of events. Greaves, clearly obsessed with the story (you’d have to be to take on the required research) establishes his own narrative of events with Hard Twisted.
On the down side, once the story is underway there’s not a great deal of tension–although we know something bad, something horrible is going to happen–it’s just a matter of when, where, and who. Lucile, nicknamed ‘Bonnie Parker’ by Palmer, is a limp character, beaten down by circumstances to expect little and demand nothing. As such she makes a perfect, sad victim for Palmer, but not a very interesting character.
On the positive side, the book very successfully establishes, through its atmospheric descriptions and its use of language, a specific time and place in history. These are characters who are forced out of society but need society to exist, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that excursions into society ultimately ended in murder. Lucile Garrett met a psychotic killer at a unique time when drifting anonymously through the country was not something that raised eyebrows. Try taking a 13-year-old across country now, sleeping out in the open. See what happens, how it long it takes before someone drops a dime and you find yourself tasered and wearing one of those orange jumpsuits.
Back in Lucile’s day, it was an everyday occurrence for families to trek across the United States looking for non-existent work, and that brought them to a subsistence mode of survival, living for the next meal, and expecting to skip a few. Lucile and her father were vulnerable to hope and that’s where Clint Palmer and his gamecocks came in. In the final evaluation, the author succeeds in recreating a desperate time which unleashed both good and bad people from society–a time in which it was impossible to differentiate those with bad intentions from those who were just trying to get by.
American author Russell Banks makes the point in his novels that those who live in poverty have lives that are open to crime–not that they commit crimes but that they have a difference range of vulnerability than the affluent–they lack the defenses of those who have more resources. Hard Twisted is one such example of lives of poverty having no barriers against crime.