Gather Around the Campfire
The Devil’s Sinkhole
by Bill Wittliff
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.
213 pp. $29.95 cloth.
Bill Witliff’s latest installment to the Papa stories, The Devil’s Sinkhole, opens in a way similar to how a TV drama closes each season—a new bad guy comes along to thwart the main characters’ plans and move the story forward. At the end of the first book, The Devil’s Backbone, all of the conflict that Papa, our main character, has faced is resolved, and the happy ending unfolds. The Devil’s Sinkhole then opens with the revelation that Papa is wanted by o’Pelo Blanco for a crime that his father committed, and we are thrust into another adventure with Papa and Calley Pearsall.
The opening conflict, like most of the rising and falling action in the book, comes easily and concludes too quickly. This proves to be Wittliff’s modus operandi, as clearly stated by Calley: “What ever you a’looking for in this o’World is out there somewhere in the World a’looking for you too. That’s the Great Secret a’Every Thing they is...” In the case of Calley and Papa, they’re always looking for a way out, and they always find it. In real time, it takes months for the pair to catch up to o’Pelo Blanco for his day of reckoning, but it only lasts for several pages in the book, which seems to be more of a pacing issue. But in general, Wittliff is too quick to bring his main characters back from the brink of death, so much so that even when their situation seems hopeless, there is no way to believe they won’t make it out alive. This story could have been propelled by more heartache a lot sooner, but it seems that we may only see the most tertiary characters killed off with little effect. In that way, the book is like a sitcom—all the conflict will ultimately be resolved to benefit the main characters.
It must be pointed out at this point that Wittliff is not striving for literary gold in writing these books. He seems more interested in amusing himself and his readers, and he has great success at just that. There are plenty of nods to Texas history that will keep Lone Star enthusiasts engaged. Given the mode of storytelling, especially with the colloquial Texas narrator telling it all in a sort of word-of-mouth way, Wittliff earns a lot of the improbable plot moves and convenient resolutions. Adding in the fact that the book is filled with almost clunky magical realism, it’s unrealistic to expect anything more than a “big fish” story.
While a lot of the book’s faults (if you want to call them that) can rest easy under the “big fish” label, there’s plenty that needs to be reworked in Wittliff’s next installment. While The Devil’s Backbone felt inventive and fresh on a first read, the Texas vernacular seems like too big of a barrier this time around. The second book works hard but does little to invent new, interesting elements or characters. On top of that, the main characters talk in circles again and again, to the point that the conversations seem like space filler until the next big thing happens.
If there’s one thing this book does well, it’s introducing new conflict. When Arlon comes to the stage in the last half of the book, the story really starts moving. People die left and right at the hands of Arlon, and Papa and Calley seem like the only cowboys for miles with a chance of stopping him. This was also one of the more interesting aspects of the book: that Arlon shows up out of nowhere to take the lead villain role from Pelo. It may sound like another unwelcome invention, but Wittliff handles it well and is better off for it.
If you were swept away in The Devil’s Backbone for all of Wittliff’s fresh takes on storytelling, the sequel will be a welcome enjoyment. In the end, this book is worth a read if only for quotes like this from Calley: “‘Well I won’t say it’s a Fact Story,’ Calley said, but ‘Yes Sir I will say it is for god dam sure a True Story.’”
Lawton Cook is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M University, and a recent recipient of a Master of Fine Arts from Texas State University. He currently lives with his wife in Austin where he is a resident storyteller with the Austin Stone.