Sometimes a story seems to be going in a particular, somewhat-predictable direction only to turn in one that seemed completely inconceivable before. Such is Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, “Noon Wine,” which is another of the works from Pale Horse, Pale Rider. In “Noon Wine,” we find ourselves on a poorly producing South Texas dairy farm watched over by the shiftless Royal Thompson and his sickly wife. As the couple fret over their deteriorating economic situation, something that Porter seems a bit too familiar describing, their apparent salvation appears in the person of Olaf Helton, a Swedish farm worker who appears from North Dakota for no apparent reason. Thompson employs Helton and enjoys nine years of increased prosperity as the slightly strange man works doggedly to improve the farm.
Of course the reader knows that this good time cannot continue. Something bad has to happen or it wouldn’t be literature. That something bad appears after the nine years in the person of Homer Hatch. Hatch, after considerable obnoxious banter, reveals himself as a bounty hunter intent of taking Helton back to North Dakota where the Swede apparently murdered his own brother and then escaped from an insane asylum.
Obviously, Thompson finds himself at a crossroads at this point. Does he cooperate with the unpleasant Hatch and lose his terrific worker, or does he attempt to protect Helton and send Hatch packing. At first, Thompson is taking just this second course, ordering Hatch off the property. The reader perhaps expects a next scene with a sheriff and an arrest warrant, but that’s not where Porter takes us.
Helton barges into the argument between the two men. That’s when Thompson believes that he sees Hatch sink a Bowie knife into his workman. Thompson then splits Hatch’s head with a nearby axe as Helton runs off. Thompson is arrested. Helton is killed resisting arrest. Hatch has long since died on Thompson’s porch.
As I read this work, I’m struck by a mystery. I understand the motivation of Hatch. I understand the person of Helton. But what do we make of Thompson? How do you see a huge knife plunged into someone only a foot away from you and then discover that the victim displayed no knife wound? Did Thompson simply want an excuse to kill Hatch? Was he just as delusional as Helton?
In the end, I’d describe this as a story about guilt and its abundance. Olaf Helton killed his brother not for the typical reason of a stolen girlfriend. Olaf’s brother instead destroyed a harmonica and refused to replace it. Clearly this was not a rational or proportional response to the offense. Olaf understandably flees the insane asylum, but he remains haunted by his action, playing the same song endlessly on the harmonica throughout his nine years in Texas.
Hatch might not seem terribly burdened by guilt, but one wonders why he wastes so much time making misleading conversation with Thompson before coming to the matter that drove him to the farm. In the end, it is just this conversation that dooms the bounty hunter to death since his ingenuine talk leads Thompson to develop an antipathy for him.
Finally, Thompson cannot seem to decide what he has seen and what he should do. Does he intend to protect Helton out of loyalty or out of the desire to keep the profits flowing in? In the end, I don’t believe that even Thompson can answer that question. After his acquittal, he feels the need to visit his neighbors and assure them of his innocence. But in the end, their opinions do not carry as much weight as his own and he shoots himself.
What a depressing story! On a struggling Texas farm, Porter sketches out the essential human condition without God. Was that her intention? I don’t believe so, but that is what she presents nonetheless. Left to our own devices, we humans find ourselves as lost souls in a dying, cooling world, driven by our own appetites and eaten up by guilt.