The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart by M. Glenn Taylor opens as Early “Trenchmouth” Taggart is being interviewed. At 108 years of age, he is the oldest living man in West Virginia at the time. Trenchmouth lights up a cigarette and settles in to tell his life story; he has been a moonshiner, a sharpshooter, a mining union thug, a bluegrass musician, an excellent lover, a snake-handler, an Appalachian columnist, a reclusive mountain man, a celebrated hunter, a newspaper reporter, and a figure of legend.
The story begins with his birth to a zealous religious woman who insists that he be baptized in the river despite the February cold. She breaks through the ice and dunks him in. She then swears that the infant opened his mouth and declared, “Pretty as you please, pretty as you please, the Devil’s got a hold on God.” Scared witless, she drops the baby into the river and spreads the story through town. The town recognizes that Mittie Ann Taggart might not be sane and that she probably did drop her baby in the river. She is promptly whisked away to an insane asylum for the duration of her life.
Meanwhile, baby Early is fished out of the river by Ona Dorsett, a widow who lives with her three-year-old adopted daughter, Clarissa, and makes her living brewing top-quality moonshine. After some time, the widow notices that Trenchmouth’s gums are bleeding and swollen. The doctor diagnoses the infant with trenchmouth, a condition where the teeth rot and the gums are constantly in pain. With that diagnosis, Early’s nickname of Trenchmouth Taggart is born, often shortened to “T. Stinky” by cruel peers at school. The widow does all that she can to ease his pain and suffering, but only rubbing moonshine on his gums offers any relief. So from an early age Trenchmouth is reliant upon alcohol to get through his days; he spends the rest of his life drinking when he has the chance.
Trenchmouth develops into a boy with remarkable eyesight and a proclivity for digging and climbing. The widow teaches him early on to use a gun; on one expedition, the widow and Trenchmouth hunt down a large bear and kill it. A local man named Frank Dallara befriends Trenchmouth and teaches him to use a slingshot with deadly accuracy; later, Frank dies in a hotel fire, and Trenchmouth greatly mourns his death. In adolescence, both Trenchmouth and his sister by adoption, Clarissa, become curious about their birth parents. The widow allows them to visit their mothers. Clarissa’s mother turns out to be a second-hand actress at a run-down establishment; she is a drunken, rough character. When Clarissa visits, she denies ever having had a child. Trenchmouth visits his mother at the asylum and is highly disturbed by her lack of stability and violence. Both children go back to the widow that evening truly grateful for the care she gives them. On the train back, Trenchmouth and Clarissa embrace and share a kiss. The romantic tension between these two characters is always an undercurrent to the novel, although fate never brings them together.
Trenchmouth wants to impress the pretty Ewart Smith, a local preacher’s daughter, so he does a brief stint with a snake-handling church. His success there attracts the attention of many women, with whom Trenchmouth becomes intimate—for a price. The money he earns from this period helps get him through the next few decades. As a teenager, Trenchmouth becomes involved with local mining unions. With his friend Arly Scott Jr., Trenchmouth causes trouble for the mining companies by blowing up supplies and firing warning shots at the company’s hired detectives. When the miners rebel against the detectives that bully people into leaving the union, the incident escalates into a full-blown shootout, and Trenchmouth kills numerous people. Afterward, he assassinates Anse Pilcher, the man who caused a lot of the trouble and who had played a role in the death of his only father figure, Frank Dallara. Trenchmouth is traumatized by his role...
(The entire section is 1,043 words.)