Gay rednecks with shotguns: your worst nightmare. Especially if they have you caught defenseless in the woods, with the choice of either getting shot at point-blank range or “squealing like a pig.” Kudos go to the character actor Bill McKinney, who was shockingly believable as the morose, gay redneck who got very strange with Beatty’s character and eventually took a well-deserved, fatal arrow through the back from the bow of Burt Reynolds’ hyper-macho character.
The image of the anti-social, possibly homicidal, redneck is one that is used quite often and effectively in movies and books. In reality? In terms of “homicidal” rednecks, I’ve honestly met two or three in my time – guys who eventually committed crimes along the lines of murder – and the less said about that, the better.
And I have met a few deeply anti-social, unfriendly rednecks – usually associated with local bars. I can still recall back when all of us were drinking in our 20s, any time we headed into a bar we weren’t familiar with, it was always an awkward moment deciding who would be the first through the door … as if a shotgun blast awaited that unlucky individual. Usually, it was one of those E.F. Hutton moments: whatever song was playing on the jukebox would scratch to a stop, everyone would stop talking and look at us. Then the record would start again, and everyone would go back to his business. I can't recall taking shit in any of those bars for not being a local -- that initial uneasiness just seems to be a hallmark of local bars in the country.
I can still recall one of my college professors back at the Penn State branch campus, Charlie, taking me along to a local bar near the campus he wasn’t familiar with. He walks in the door, surveys the scene, which really wasn’t all that bad in terms of redneck quotient, and loudly announces, “Well, looks like Ray isn’t here, let’s go.” I’m willing to bet banjo music was playing in his head, visions of him getting anally probed on the pinball machine by guys in CAT hats, and he didn’t want to offend the patrons by just turning around walking straight out without a logical explanation.
But every now and then, I would (and still do) come across rednecks who put out that uncomfortable Ted Kaczynski vibe. When I’m back home, I take a long morning run along the back roads around my hometown – which used to be farms and wood lands, but over the past 20 years have filled up with McMansions. Still, there are patches of lower-income housing which have been there for decades and will always be there.
And running by one of those houses, I came across one of those rednecks. Usually in small towns, especially along a back road, if I walk by someone, I say or nod hello – just a given, what people do. As I was running by one of those houses – broken kid’s Big Wheels and wagons in the front yard, beat-up cars along the side of the house – there was a guy staring at me – very lean, bearded, angry-looking, shirtless and greasy-looking. I called out hello, and he just stared back, turning to stare as I passed.
What was that all about, I wondered. Did he think I was one of the new McMansion owners, and he had an attitude about them? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t have been untoward of me to say, “What the fuck is your problem?” and get into it with him. Then again, one of life’s golden rules: avoid meaningless confrontation. And some angry redneck in my rear-view mirror, much like his urban equivalents, is a sweet sight.
Please understand that my home area, Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania, is hardly deep-woods Appalachia. Frankly, it’s starting to feel more like a far-flung suburb of Scranton, Reading and Harrisburg, as the place has built up in ways I don’t like over the past few decades. Most people you’ll meet back there are nowhere near that far gone, are well connected to the world, and aside from hallmarks like hunting, fishing, country music and NASCAR, probably lead lives that aren’t much different from anyone else’s in the country.
Still, every now and then, you come across some strange bastard throwing out the Deliverance vibe. From what I’ve seen, it’s a familial thing – some families just pass from one generation to another in deep redneck mode. Often farmers, or I hate to say it, just plain stupid people, who don’t “marry up” in terms of intelligence and keep putting out insular, vaguely-angry rednecks. And for every one of those kind of people, you’ll find dozens of basically friendly, approachable folks who display all the trappings of the culture, but are simply good people trying to get by like anyone else.
This is hard to explain to city folk, who often don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground when confronted by anyone who looks like a redneck. The immediate reaction is like Charlie’s: fear masked by an uneasy desire not to offend. In Deliverance, Ned Beatty’s character is this feeling personified. He first tries to be friendly to the rednecks. Then realizes they aren’t friendly. When the McKinney character untowardly touches his face, he’s visibly frightened. And it all goes downhill from there.
Frankly, the way city folk deal with rednecks isn’t that much different from the way I see many white folks in the city deal with black and hispanic thugs. Which is to say kiss as much ass as possible in hopes that these angry, potentially-violent thugs will leave them alone. If I had a dime for every instance where I’ve seen white people turn into lambs when confronted like this … and the thugs instinctively grasp that they’ve been given the upper hand and lay their “scare whitey” routine on even thicker. Often in situations where the white (usually) guy could pulverize the little turd he’s dealing with … if he wasn’t such a wimp.
The best tack to take is always to confront people like this head-on. Kissing a moron’s ass never leads anywhere good: never. If somebody’s looking to take a chunk out of you, make them take a chunk out of you – because chances are, they’re not up for it and only looking to satisfy some primordial urge to dominate what they perceive to be a lesser being. I don’t care if you’re talking black thugs on a subway or white rednecks in a country bar: it’s the same difference. If you show fear, like a dog, they will act on it. And most situations like this are easily avoided by simply walking away from the offending party.
That connection between black and white is a good one to make, because I think the underlying fear is of being confronted by someone, whatever his color, who is in some way rejecting the values of our society. Oh, my, doesn’t this person know wearing cowboy boots with shorts and sporting a swastika tattoo on his adam’s apple is in very bad form. That seems to be the vibe. And I think what that person is really trying to tell you is, “I’m a tasteless asshole who doesn’t know how to act.” He may not admit to that. In his mind, it will be, “I’m a rebel.” There are very few true rebels in our society. Surly rednecks are identifiable enough that they fall more into acceptable subculture than truly rebellious. Our country is crawling with mewling bozos who think they are true rebels, but are in reality acceptable subcultures who are contained well within our societal constraints. Next time there’s a biker rally anywhere near you, pop on by and notice all the t-shirt and leather goods vendors, hotels, bars and such making a fortune off these (often well-paid) people.
Still, after seeing Deliverance, I decided that if I ever went camping again, I’d bring along an Uzi, just in case. Because sometimes you do come across those weird backwoods folk who aren’t playing head games. Honestly, I can count on one hand the times I’ve come up against a redneck and felt any sense of impending danger. Ditto thugs in the city – most are just imbecile kids and adults who have a problem with the world, and I make it a point not to make myself some symbolic lightning rod to them and their idiotic anger. I’ve never come across any gay rednecks with shotguns looking to make me squeal like a pig. Has this ever happened to anyone? Hats off to James Dickey for creating such a compelling, nightmarish character. Because a gay redneck with a shotgun manages the near-impossible in our society: he scares everyone.