The Trapper’s Last Shot opens in 1960 when Beau Jim Early is returning home to Cocke County, Georgia, after 6 years in the U.S. Army. Beau Jim moves in with Dan, his brother, who is 15 years older and now a farmer, both of them survivors of a fire that killed their parents and drove them from North Carolina. Living with Dan in very straitened circumstances are his mean-spirited and child-abusing wife, Charlene, and Sheila, their thumb-sucking 7 year old who is about to repeat first grade, perhaps in part due to the literal pillow-smothering attacks at the hands of Charlene when she was still an infant, and assuredly in part due to the intellectually barren home life described.

Beau Jim realizes his immediate post-service dream of enrolling in college, nearby Senneca College, while learning to hustle pool with Claire, his high school classmate now mentor. Claire is a worldly wise alcoholic homosexual who has learned how to survive in the deep South as such while remaining just below the radar of his homophobic, racist white contemporaries. Somewhere amidst all this hubbub Beau Jim meets up with an old high school classmate, Yancey, and, a trifle improbably, becomes her beau as well as her Beau.

Although enjoying college and doing well, Beau Jim begins to doubt his intellectual fit as a college man, given his background and temperament. Shortly after, he and Claire suffer a beating at the hands of the stereotypically vicious local Deputy Sheriff Earl Wagner, a beating initiated by Claire’s homosexuality, which Jim had not suspected. This beating is the penultimate climactic event in the book: Jim quits college; Claire effectually disappears from view; and the focus now shifts to Dan and his struggling farm and family life.

Charlene, in a fit of pique over Dan’s decision to have her milk the cow to save money, sets the barn on fire (a fact never discovered by Dan), kills the cow and, in so doing, detonates the apocalyptic sequence of events that close this dark novel in an even more noir fashion. Dan snaps mentally, shooting to death an entire family of innocent blacks whom he knew and respected, as well as a stranger, a college student at Senneca.

The final pages, like the opening ones, provide a bookend (literally) of bleakness: we find Beau Jim working as a mason in  a new town with despicably mean white masons in a dead end job as he tries to establish a family life with Yancey and Sheila, whom Charlene is more than happy to be offloading on them. Unlike the initial pages, the ending offers a glimmer of the hope for an intact family life for Beau and Yancey and Sheila.


This novel is an understated indictment of the consequences of overwhelming poverty, racism and ignorance in rural Georgia of 1960.  Although the tone is muted throughout, the reader - at least this reader - finds himself emotionally winded by the last page and can only reach for a cocktail, watch a mindless football game, or go for a walk. Or all the above, in sequence.

Yount narrates the story of Dan, Beau Jim and Claire with uncommon skill. He is able to weave a picaresque beginning of the novel into the subdued romance of Beau Jim and Yancey while painting a highly credible portrait of a white homosexual stuck in his society, fending for himself as best he can while never deluding himself about his role, his limitations or the social skills necessary for his survival. The pages describing Dan's psychotic transition from a calm, peaceful farmer into a homocidal racist are convincingly magical.

The keystone of the book is Dan, who struggles with his acknowledged intellectual limitations ("I ain't got but two thinking gears, he'd say, one's low and the tuther's double low, and they both growl when i use em."  [page 39]) and his desperate attempt to understand the ways of God, much less men of all colors. Most of all he fails, while trying mightily not to, to understand why he is failing at life despite his unbelievably hard and constant labor. Never have I read a book that reminded me as much of Halldór Laxness’s monolithic, Nobel-winning novel of pre-WW I Iceland, Independent People.  Bjartur of Summerhouses and Dan Early are literary twins separated at birth with regard to their fierce independence, identification with the soil and their stolid belief in their will to succeed by dint of the sweat of their brows, despite repeated missteps and adversity, especially adversity imposed on them from without. The last proves too much for Dan, a simpler man than Bjartur, and chaos ensues.

The title of the book derives from a well known painting by William Ranney, who was already gaining a reputation for oils of the rapidly expanding U.S. West when his painting, The Trapper’s Last Shot (figure below), vaulted the artist to fame, a fame that Ranney could only enjoy, unfortunately, for seven more years before his death of tuberculosis at the age of 44. Ranney’s experience with the West was that of an Easterner who had gone to volunteer with the Texan Army in 1836; but that sojourn was life-changing in shaping his life and his art. On page 32 of the novel, Beau Jim relates the significance of this painting to himself and his family: the vivid memory of a 6 year old of this painting in his family's house.  Dan, who was 21 at the time, can only shake his head at the mystery of such a vivid early childhood memory. Beau Jim develops, during the subsequent course of the novel, a working relationship with the Trapper in the engraving, referring to himself as "The Trapper", which is significant since in some of the versions of this painting and subsequent engraving, there are American Indians lying in wait for this trapper. What are Beau Jim's lurking enemies? Racism, poverty and an intellectual wasteland.

Perhaps one of the most depressing interpretations of this fine novel is the determinism that pervades it: the apparent truism that one is helpless before the inescapable moira the gods have meted out to you eons before. From the opening pages wherein a hapless boy jumps to his death in a pond of water moccasins and tries to escape from his fate with dozens of snakes hanging off him like poor Laocoon, to Dan's psychotically murdering seven innocent blacks whose fates just as poorly served them, to the final pages when yet another young helper is mistreated by the vicious bricklayers in a scene out of Dante's Inferno - the overwhelming sense is of futility, of almost Sisyphean hopelessness.
This book will be of interest to readers of literature and medicine wishing to read about alcoholism, child abuse and mental illness in the 1960's American South.


The Trapper's Last Shot by William Ranney:


Random House

Place Published

New York


1973: First Edition

Page Count