Click here to return to the main site.

Book Review

Book Cover

A Teller’s Tales
Memories of James and Willie


Author: John R. Cole
Publisher: Independent

416 pages
RRP: £11.57
ISBN: 978 179641 074 7
Publication Date: 08 February 2019

John Cole’s books are prismatic views of his entire autobiography. Born in Kentucky, Cole joined the United States Marine Corps in 1968 against his mother’s wishes and distinguished himself among other Marines, one of whom, James Webb, later became a Senator and best-selling author.

A Teller’s Tales: Memories of James and Willie is not Cole’s battlefield recollection as a rifleman in Vietnam but a loving embrace of his childhood growing up in a hard scrabble life of Kentucky without consolation of piteous tragedy. This is not the externally observed tragedy of Erskine Caldwell, who when he tried to be humorous in a self styled Twainian way, failed. Cole is not writing God’s Little Acre nor does he devolve into Ma & Pa Kettle but is more like, dare I say, Faulkner when that giant allowed himself to laugh and yes, dare I say again, approaching Clemens himself. The transits of Cole’s life witness and participate in epic cultural tectonic shifts in the world and in America. Surviving it all grants him the gift of transmitting what he’s observed into a philosophy of life, for as he says, “There has to be a way of looking at life.” How better to come through poverty, hunger and deprivation than to laugh at it and plough its hard earth for a harvest of tall tales to tell on the front porch of the mind. A Teller’s Tales: Memories of James and Willie is ribald, gaspingly funny and observant of human nature unique to the “Kayn-tuck” world that gave us Daniel Boone and (full disclosure) my father’s family as well.

Expert car stealing, moonshine manufacturing, marijuana gardening (“Granny was a double puffer meaning she would take two big puffs before holding…”) and women who murder their mates (some of the scariest women of the universe stroll through these pages) are all only the surface here. What lies beneath is a beloved population too resilient to go softly into that good night without a fuss and a fight. The spirit of poor people rich in soul is the theme and its stars are two brothers, James and Willie.

Cole creates a literary tapestry in the tongue of the locale and brings to mind Faulkner and (sometimes) Tennessee Williams. The argot is phonetically delivered on the page so if one just hangs onto the handle bars and sounds it out with abandon, one very quickly hears these voices. And in the voices we find eloquence of humour as a response to suffering flooding away tragedy with a confluence of comedy. The hazards of life are well discerned. They can be fatal or just hurt “awful bad.” The ones that hurt “awful bad” are the ones we learn from.

(Remember: just let yourself go, shed your classist inhibitions and read phonetically (fö-nét-ĭ-clēē.) By the time you finish you’ll think you deserve a mail-in Presidential ballot from Kentucky or speak “Southern” as well as an actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Don’t laugh, in the historical present tense of drama, all the great ones do it and get huge movie pay checks for doing it. Think Laurence Harvey, Richard Burton, Sir Larry, Michael Caine, Branagh and Laughton.)

Cole has a way with deadpan delivery that ambushes you with laughter. Novice car thieves try to steal a car which they will sell to James. Willie is in jail right now beating and being beaten by the town cops. Tangentially speaking, and this book is full of tangents, how one can get comedy out of jail work-overs is downright miraculous, but Cole does. One gets the idea he’s had personal experience in this department. Anyway, the car to be stolen is from Willie’s back yard and though Willie’s distracted downtown by tear gas and much thumping of head and brawny body, his dog (legendarily rumoured by tall tale telling to be a cross breed of hound and wolverine) is on duty. You and I know this “cayn’t” be, as the tale is told, but then it wouldn’t be as good, would it? Nor as tall.

The novice car thieves, nowhere up to James and Willie’s class (and yes, James would pay for a car stolen from Willie, that the car itself is stolen doesn’t matter) clumsily make a noise on some strewn about hubcaps (stolen, of course):

After that, well, let’s realize that things were no longer quiet.

Sumpthin very fast, and very vicious, came snarling out uhve those bushes, and both uhve-um had wet britches before they could get back into the closest car. That just happened to be the car that had been stolen. One uhve the boys used the tender parts uhve his body just below his belt line to catch the animal by its teeth and hold it while the other boy did a kwick thanks to his God that he was on the other side uhve the car. He then jumped in and opened the opposite side car door and commenced to dragging his buddy through it. The pain, at that point, became something a body could really scream home about.

And somebody did.

The long and short uhve it was that that boy had gotten some teeth marks in places that were going to hurt for a spell. And his girlfriend, well, she was just gunna haff to hope for the best when it came to romance.

This is language and lore known to Kentucky cognoscenti as “chewing the fat,” archetypally occurring on the front porch as evening settles in and whatever is being ingested takes hold and wisdom flows forth. Wisdom is an essential and Kentuckians have a sense of superiority over the world. “The foresight of hindsight” is a necessity for all plans and schemes and realization that “the past is nuthin’ more than the future gone…” Which gives us a profound zen-like appreciation of the present. The now we know may not be what we want, may not be pleasant but it is all we really own. Any of us, Kentuckian or not.

After all, a good day is found wherever you make it. Seldom, if ever, will you find one already pre-made that some bahdy else don’t already own. Make up your own mind. You will have a good day, or you will not.

Did I mention Norbert, the pet rat? No, I see I didn’t... Nor the rattlesnake known as “The Old Man,” thusly for his size and longevity… Norbert and The Old Man fight while bets are being made, and no, I will not spoil the outcome of that deadly duel.

People have no monopoly on personality and Nature down to the soil itself is given an animistic life all its own. Infused by the tale teller and passing the torch to us.

Perhaps amidst this “down home” oral history is the secret charm of the mind of John Cole. Life talks back to us if we have the ears to hear it. The vision of humour radiates if we have the eyes to behold. And it is waiting, waiting for us to communicate it to someone else. And therein, whatever your geographic locus, is the meaning of life.


John Huff

Buy this item online

Each of the store links below opens in a new window, allowing you to compare the price of this product from various online stores.

Kindle edition
Kindle edition