We’re often told by craftsmen that “a piece of fiction needs conflict.” Some novels have such a faint outline of what drives a conflict that we must deduce it from clues buried under literary sediment. The struggle is abstract and internal and deep. Not so with Deliver Thy Pigs, the sturdy, workmanlike debut novel by Joey Hedger which has come out from Malarkey Books. Hedger’s novel is all conflict.
The novel takes place in the slaughterhouse town of Prairie Ridge, Illinois, a town filled with the ever-present reek of dead pigs at J. Lowell’s Meat Factory, Prairie Ridge’s main employer. As with many situations of economic dependence, there are resentments and dissidents among the townspeople who need the factory to stay afloat and yet hate the environment it creates, the polluted river, the way birds fall out of the sky from the miasma, but most of all the smell on everything and everybody. The citizens of Prairie Ridge, Illinois, are compromised by the presence of the slaughterhouse, in both economic and cultural ways. Whether they are employees or not, they are all implicated in a web of dependence and domination, in which, as one employee’s superstition alludes, “speaking up equaled bad things.”
The bulk of the plot of the novel is indeed a clear struggle between two characters, consisting of revenge pranks between Marco Polo Woodridge and Dave Hughes, the manager of J. Lowell’s Meat Factory. Marco Polo’s father died in an accident at the slaughterhouse a year ago and Marco Polo, a sandwich artist at a local deli, spends his free time being a pest, shooting a BB gun at Dave Hughes’ window. That’s where it starts before escalating. Stretches of Deliver Thy Pigs resemble the montage from Rushmore where Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray go back and forth doing increasingly dastardly things to each other—releasing bees, cutting brake lines—fighting over a common love interest, the teacher Olivia Williams. The combat in Hedger’s novel isn’t about such love and jealousy but over Marco Polo’s bitter vendetta against the slaughterhouse. It sees the tit-for-tat revenge spiraling out of control in ways that are tinged with humor at first but attempts to signal more gravity and danger as the novel continues.
Added to this is a related subplot where a mother and daughter duo living in the town, Susan and Margaret Banks, launch their own forms of protest against the slaughterhouse, on less personal grounds than Marco Polo: the Banks women hate the slaughter and what it is doing to the town’s environment. The Banks family join forces with Marco Polo against the slaughterhouse, and the greater the alliance, the bigger the stakes become, the more conspicuous the target on their backs.
Other patterns of small-town life persist but like the river meeting implacable obstacles are redirected by the growing fight over the slaughterhouse. Marco Polo’s life has been put on hold by his revenge fantasies, and the extrication from that obsession is difficult, but we can see that it could have been a way out of the violence. A young woman, named June, a new arrival to the town, has caught his eye and the seeds of romantic relationship are, if not planted, at least taken out of the package and held in the hand and contemplated over waiting earth. However, it’s revealed that June is the sister of Marco Polo’s enemy Dave Hughes, the plant manager, so it becomes the source for a further, confusing adulteration of his motives. Points of view switch between June and Marco Polo in a crucial scene where any emotional prospects between the two are shattered by her lack of context and understanding of his consuming conflict. It’s a well-done narrative turn.
Deliver Thy Pigs is a gentle, rather cozy novel that almost credibly veers into decent suspense territory as the stakes get higher and Dave Hughes catches on to who the perpetrators are. Several close calls between the antagonists, which are inevitable in a small town, occur with impressive effects. However, I say “almost credibly” because in spite of the conflict and violence between the characters, it often seems to feel like anything other than adolescent chicanery. The story is that of a mild-mannered Midwestern thriller that, even as it flirts with violence and hints of murder, never descends into darkness. The interference with such a descent may be one of the shakier aspects of the novel. It could not be otherwise, one supposes, as the setting of the novel dictates the underpinnings of morality, but at times the balance between humorous prank and scary repercussion isn’t communicated smoothly.
Putting these criticisms aside, Deliver Thy Pigs is a very solid and accomplished first novel that evokes a clear setting, gives us defined characters, and takes us on a journey between two neatly opposing poles: the economic priorities of a local capitalist outcropping and the growing objections of the people living in its shadow.
Deliver Thy Pigs, by Joey Hedger. Malarkey Press, April 2022. 232 pages. $15.00, paper.
Jesse Hilson is a freelance reporter living in the Catskills in New York State. His work has appeared or will appear in AZURE, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Excuse Me Mag, Apocalypse Confidential, Empty Room Radio, and elsewhere. In 2022, his novel Blood Trip will be published by Close to the Bone (UK) and his poetry chapbook Handcuffing the Venus de Milo will be published by Bullshit Lit. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60 and he runs a Substack newsletter at cholorohemoglobin.substack.com.
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