Little did I suspect when I stumbled upon The Sioux in the fiction section of a second-hand bookshop that lurking beneath its deceptive title I’d find a neglected masterpiece of high camp Southern Gothic - one written by, no less, a British character actress famous for being typecast as a humble charwoman. Irene Handl’s 1965 work is almost undoubtedly the sort of book one should simply read and let be read. But I’m unable to contain my… my what? Enthusiasm? Bewilderment? Awe? Horror? Bouche-bée-edness? Handl’s ferocious, sui generis novel quite nearly gave me the screaming habdabs.
The Sioux has next to nothing to do with Native Americans. The title refers to the name the Benoirs apply to their own outré tribe: an aristocratic French family exiled to the Antilles and then to Louisiana around the time of the Revolution, and whose current generations shuttle between opulent homes in and around Paris and New Orleans. The novel opens with a phone call between Marguerite Benoir (a.k.a. Mimi, a.k.a Mims, a.k.a. the Governor of Alcatraz) and her beloved eldest brother, the family head Armand (a.k.a. Benoir, a.k.a. Herman), who, at his house outside Paris, has been tending to Marguerite’s son George-Marie while Marguerite and her new husband, British banker Vincent Castleton, honeymoon their way around the world. The conversation centers on young George-Marie, whom Armand plans to accompany on the next boat to New Orleans to reunite him with his mother and new papa-chéri. Other characters rounding out the “general bashi bazoukerie” of this filthy rich troupe include Armand’s mousey wife Marie, his spoiled young adult son Bienville (a.k.a. Viv), whose marriage of convenience to an Elaine in France is impending, and a whole host of servants, most of whom appear to be descended from the slaves owned by Benoir ancestors before the Late Unpleasantness. Oh, and there’s a monkey, Ouistiti, who hangs about on Armand’s shoulder, stealing food and baring his teeth at just about everyone.
The Sioux themselves are scarcely more civilized. They carp and snipe at one another, throw their weight and privilege around to get what they want, castigate the servants, use the word “chic” a lot, display bursts of violence and an evident regret over the demise of slavery, and live “in a perpetual state of je m’en-foutism… under the impression that they are still living in pre-secession and are happy to spend the rest of their lives up to the eyebrows in spanish moss.” Few books I’ve read contain so much sheer nastiness; there’s almost no difference this family hasn’t explored in its own way, from incest to a capacity for outrageous venality to a disdain for those “Apaches” outside the tribe (including the newest interloper, Castleton). At 26, the beautiful and cruel Marguerite has already been married twice before, first to Georges, a French race-car driver killed in an auto accident outside of Chantilly while swerving to avoid an animal, then a short-lived second marriage to the rich, reactionary Governor Davis Davis of Mississippi. Castleton is both amused and scandalized by the monstrous family into which he has been wed. Sensing that he’ll always remain an outsider, his attitude echoes a claim of George-Marie: “Oh, it is farouche the way Benoirs will look at you, as if there is not a single part of you they do not own.”
The novelty of this cast of miscreants might on its own lift The Sioux well beyond mere camp, but further elevating its literary pedigree is Handl’s dangerously inventive, rapid-fire language, mesmerizing to the point of éblouissance. Handl is able to switch moods on a franc; there are some extraordinarily poetic passages, which almost instantly give way to the whole vaudeville show. Rafts of prose appear in Franglish, reflecting the Benoirs’ blend of formal French and Queen’s English with elements of Louisiana Creole, “Ol’ Kintuck” and “Miss’ippa” thrown in. That’s not even counting George-Marie’s peculiar grammatical convolutions, Castleton’s Anglicisms, his manservant Bone’s idiomatic Cockney and a constant eruption of Siouxian neologisms, such as “creolising” to refer to the servants’ tendency to lapse into languor when the Benoirs aren’t around.
An out of context quotation may be as likely to send potential readers scurrying for cover as to draw them in, but I’ll provide one here to give a flavor, with the caveat that one glittering excerpt scarcely hints at the novel’s considerable depths. The scene is the end of a Benoir dinner, as young George-Marie heads off to bed:
He is replete with Iced Melon, Homard Thermidor, Happiness, Kisses, Cailles en chemise, Champagne, Love, Filial Piety, Champagne, Colibris and Humming-birds, More Champagne, a Little Brother, Ouistiti, Salade à l’Orange, Pommes duchesse, Viv’s wedding, Asperges, Sauce Mousseline, Shyness, Father Kelly, Putting Oneself Last, Fraises à la crême, two tiny Petits Fours shaped like paniers des roses, More Champagne, a taste of maman’s Crépes Suzette, Obedience, Nice Fruits from everybody, and an oyster direct from the Brochette d’huîtres served as a special attention to Mr. Castleton who is the favorite of them all and don’t eat desserts much.
The Sioux also employ a panoply of nicknames for one another so dizzying that I had to read the first chapter a second time just to get a handle on who was who. George-Marie, for example, possesses “more names than Jehovah,” including George-Marie, George, Marie, Puss, Moumou, the Wizard, Ducky, the Dauphin, King Nutty, les Spooks and Thingo, to name but a few.
The gravitational center of The Sioux resides in this minable nine-year-old, one of the most singular, memorable literary characters I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading. This moony mixture of vulnerability, innocence, fragility, precocity and defiance is a lost child caught up in the competing, selfish interests of his various family members, their swirl of languages and international hop-scotching, their parental and familial inadequacies. Fed on oysters and champagne and suckled with “canards” (sugar cubes in spoons of cognac and coffee), George-Marie suffers from social isolation and the fact not only of resembling his deceased Delta-born grand-mèmère, revered and detested in equal measure by other family members, but also of having had already, in his short life, three different fathers spread across two continents and an insufferably immature mother whose behavior towards her son ranges between smothering attention and appalling verbal and physical abuse. The hapless George - pale, bruised, skeletal, “whose natural habitat is the firing line, and whose nerves in consequence are one delicious quaking jelly“ - is given to bouts of spontaneous crying. Castleton quips that the boy has no tear ducts, but rather “a Device, like windscreen wipers” which should be loaned out to wash down the cars. Most significantly, in this rarified world of privilege floating high above the grim realities of life, George represents one inescapable, grim reality that pierces privilege’s bubble: he is severely ill, stricken with megaloblastic leukemia.
How did such a thing come into being? I’m at a loss. No obvious literary precedents come to mind, and the idea is so original that it must have emerged from deeply idiosyncratic personal experience. Handl’s own mother was French, but my suggesting any personal history at play here would be purely conjectural. Handl’s indelible characters seem simultaneously like grossly-inflated caricatures and completely flesh and blood, and the manner in which she can maneuver almost seamlessly from melodramatic absurdity to the most tender and abject realities astounds. Those abject realities include the South’s original sin, its legacy of slavery, here reproduced and perpetuated in a grotesque dynamic of arrogance, privilege and punition. I even wondered if the novel might have originated from Handl’s having come into actual contact with the object that in The Sioux takes the place of Chekhov’s gun-in-the-first-act, a beaded whip, a “soupir d’amour,” small enough to fit in a coat pocket and handed down from a previous generation of slave-owning Benoirs, a repugnant object which, like a coiled serpent in the garden, alters the story in an irrevocable way.
Handl balances her tale at the acute angle where the pathos of this terminally-ill child meets the limitless sense of entitlement and invincibility of his ingrown family, a tension Handl exploits to relentless comedic effect, yet without the affectation of zaniness for the sake of zaniness. An undercurrent of indignation runs beneath the most comical scenes. “Mon dieu, hold him properly, Vincent! He won’t break! He isn’t made of sugar, you know!” exclaims Marguerite while chastising her husband for allowing George-Marie to kiss him on his probably germ-filled mouth. If there’s any moral compass in the novel, it’s Castleton, who soberly reflects in response, “That’s all she knows about it. He is made of purest meringue. The slightest pressure and all they would have left is a pretty little hill of sparkling white sugar.” Handl combines her campy comedy with a fierce moral sense, making The Sioux at once laugh-out-loud funny, unabatedly cringeworthy and caustically, emotionally devastating.
Irene Handl published just one other work of fiction, a 1977 sequel to The Sioux entitled The Gold Tip Pfitzer. The sequel, taking up where the first novel left off and moving the action to Paris, is certainly worth reading. However, it feels almost superfluous, like an additional bonbon when one is already full but can’t (and won’t) say no to more. It primarily serves to provide the reader an extended opportunity to spend a bit more time in the world of the “ruddy, habit-forming Sioux,” this complex, awful, intoxicating family to whom even Castleton, in perhaps the best position to recognize the tribe’s abysmal failings, admits “an addiction.”