From Carolina Coast:
Readers at first may not find Stephen March's novella, "Armadillo," beautiful. It's filled with evil.
For fun, a sociopath named Cross turns his pit bull on a pet armadillo owned by Wanda. She poisons the dog in revenge. He hires two thugs to rape and beat her and crucify her canary.
Meanwhile, he's running a body shop that paints hot cars. He underpays his employees, Chuck and Ajax. He revels in having the upper hand and keeps down-and-out folk indebted to him through fear. He's a slumlord and a misogynist with a vile mouth and a safe filled with cash.
This guy is the epitome of pure bad. Pile on stuff that is plaguing the rest of the cast, such as poor self-image, poverty, apathy and more, and you have a social ills pyre begging for a match.
So where's the beauty? In the truth. March, who grew up chiefly in Tennessee, West Virginia and North Carolina, creates a cast of miserably real characters set in the backwoods South. Cross is at one end of the spectrum and Ajax, a hard working family man balances the other end. Straddling the middle is narrator, Chuck, and his girlfriend, Wanda.
Chuck is a high school dropout who sees himself as a bad seed. He paints stolen cars and never manages to make it to church with his Bible-toting mama. But he intends to go. He thinks about being good. And he loves and misses his dead dad.
Unlike Cross, Chuck is capable of empathy and real camaraderie, like relaxing at the fishing hole with his good old work buddy, Ajax. They drink beer and commiserate about their boss. Chuck talks about some day opening up a body shop, running it honestly, and hiring Ajax.
Wanda has redeeming qualities too. Apart from the fact that she killed Cross' pit bull, she loves
animals. She rescues an armadillo from being tortured. She takes it home to a ramshackle trailer she shares with Chuck and feeds it Vienna sausages - food that the money-less folk could eat.
Like most people, she dreams of better days. But she's also completely capable of stealing, conning, and using her feminine wiles to get a bottle of wine and a pack of smokes.
Do they sound contradictory? Real people are complex. Even Hitler was known to love animals. Therein lies the hope that March spotlights.
Chuck gradually warms up to Wanda, who wandered to his trailer after trying Cross out first. Like a wild animals in search of food, she smells his potential. Chuck respects Wanda's fearlessness. He admires her ability to get out of a jam.
Something that resembles love begins to awaken.
But March keeps us in suspense. Will Chuck flush down Cross' toilet or move on the better things?
He wrestles with the desire to kill Cross after what he did to Wanda. He thinks about stabbing him with his beloved father's knife. Would that make it OK? While he does exact revenge, Chuck manages to not succumb to his basest emotion. In the end, he leaves Cross to wrestle with his biggest fear. Chuck and Wanda then head north - in a borrowed car - to start a new life.
The author is a master at creating contrast - good versus evil with all the subtleties thrown in between. His characters are delicately balanced in a fast-paced story pocked with pitfalls. Karma reshuffles the deck. Cross gets his comeuppance and Chuck and Wanda find some sort of redemption as well.
Thankfully hope rings eternal in a work that is edgy but never gratuitous. In "Armadillo," truth sculpts a tomb of trouble, but March allows hope to scream through the cracks.
— Mary Ellen Riddle
Praise for Armadillo
Armadillo won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, 2002.
"The characters who populate the taut universe of Armadillo skate on the wobblyedge of the abyss. They are forced to invent salvation for themselves and must achieve it however they can. Stephen March shows us that hope is possible even in an inferno of desolation. His novel is as stark as a desert landscape —and presents the same kind of beauty. It is truthful and wounding. It is pitiless. It is a triumph."