Inman and Veasey arrive at a woodcutters’ clearing. There’s a huge tree lying in the middle of the road, and it’s clearly been cut with a sharp saw. Inman finds the saw resting by the tree, and Veasey suggests that they take it and sell it. Veasey clarifies that God is “not too” respectful of property rights—property is only a tiny detail of his plan. Inman reluctantly agrees. Veasey takes the saw, and they continue walking.
This is a funny moment, and it goes a long way toward endearing Veasey to the reader. Veasey is clearly corrupt, bending the rules of right and wrong to suit his own needs, but here his crime seems victimless and amusing.
A short while later, the duo finds a man standing before a dead bull in a stream. The man cries out for help, and Inman and Veasey walk off the road to help him (Veasey leaves the saw by the side of the road). The man explains that the bull’s carcass is spoiling the potable water in the stream: he wants help pulling the bull away from the water. After some thought, Inman, Veasey, and the man agree to use leverage to move the bull. They spend the afternoon trying to find ways to lift the bull with tree branches, but nothing works. Eventually, they give up in frustration, and use the saw to cut the bull to pieces. After they finish their task, the man invites Inman and Veasey to dine with him. Inman accepts, offering Veasey’s saw as payment.
Here we see the camaraderie fostered in times of war. Inman and Veasey have never met this stranger before, but they still offer him their help. The conceit of a bull poisoning the water seems symbolically loaded—perhaps it represents the corruption of the South before and after the Civil War, or the tremendous burden of moving on from past traumas. In any case, we should notice the “quid pro quo” here: Inman gives the stranger the saw in exchange for food and lodgings. Although Veasey gets the saw for nothing, it doesn’t take long before the saw enters the informal bartering system that dominates life in the book.
The trio walks away from the stream, happy to be done with their work. The man introduces himself as Junior, and he “entertains” Inman and Veasey with stories of having had sex with married women years ago. He tells Inman and Veasey about his wife—a horrible person, he claims, who gave birth to a black baby (obviously not Junior’s). The wife refused to name the real father of the child, but Junior was unable to obtain a divorce. Later, Junior’s wife bore two more children—also probably not Junior’s.
The more we learn about Junior, the more villainous he seems to become. He’s clearly a man without many principles, given his affairs with married women, and what’s worse, he’s a hypocrite: he resents his wife for cheating on him, even though he’s done the same thing many times over.
Junior takes Inman and Veasey to his house, where he offers them food and coffee. At dinner, Junior’s child walks out, and Junior wonders aloud if she’s an “octoroon” or a “quadroon” (racist terms for someone who’s part black). The girl says that her name is Lula, but Junior angrily yells that her name is Chastity. Later on, a young woman enters the room, and Junior addresses her as Lila, his wife. Lila is wearing almost no clothing—something that surprises and shocks Inman. Inman is more shocked when Junior openly touches Lila’s breasts.
Junior seems particularly oblivious and lecherous in this scene: he has bizarre arguments with his “children” about their real names, illustrating his lack of authority even in his own house. Junior also offers no words of affection to Lila—he seems to treat her as an object for his sexual pleasure, not a person.
Lila goes outside, and Inman follows her. He sees Lila greeting her sisters, who look almost identical to her. Inman greets the sisters, but they don’t say anything to him. Lila touches Inman’s shoulder and calls him “Big man.” She offers him a strong drink, which Inman accepts, and she tells him about how once Junior killed a man out of anger. She goes on to name other occasions when Junior was violent, even suggesting that Junior murdered his own mother. She offers Inman more food and drink, and Inman—who’s still hungry—accepts, though he notices that the meat is “too big for hog, but too pale for cow.” Inman begins to feel drowsy, and notices shapes that resemble human beings, resting in the fireplace. Before Inman can eat any of the strange meat, Lila slides his plate away and tells her sisters to leave them alone. Then, she lets Inman—who can barely stand or talk—touch her breasts and thighs. Suddenly, the door bursts open and Junior barges in with a gun.
In one of the creepiest parts of the novel, Frazier strongly implies that the food Inman is eating is human flesh: it’s possible that the murderous, bizarre Junior has killed some of his previous guests (or enemies) and roasted them for food. The erotic scenes in this section seem particularly off-putting, since they’re paired with the suggestion of cannibalism. Given all we know about Junior, it would seem that Junior was planning to ambush Inman the entire time—waiting for Inman to go off with Lila, and then barging in on him with a loaded gun. There are also more references to the Odyssey here. Lila and her sisters “drugging” Inman references the episode of the “Lotus-eaters,” and Junior’s cannibalism seems to allude to Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops in the Odyssey.
Junior stands over Inman and Lila, pointing a gun right at Inman’s head. He marches Inman outside, where Inman sees Veasey standing. Junior yells out that he’s found some “outliers,” and a group of horsemen approach him—the Home Guard. The horsemen tie up Inman and Veasey and build a fire. Junior yells that the horsemen should “wed” Inman and Lila, using Veasey as the preacher. Veasey reluctantly proceeds to marry Inman to Lila, with Junior hollering songs. Afterwards, the horsemen lead Inman and Veasey down the road, into the dark.
Apparently Junior works with the Home Guard, and uses the offer of food and lodgings to attract deserters like Veasey and Inman. Then he alerts the Home Guard to the deserters’ whereabouts. In short, Junior violates the unwritten (but sacred) laws of hospitality: he betrays his guests’ trust. The more we learn about the Guardsmen, the clearer it becomes that (at least in Frazier’s version of history) they don’t care about the Civil War at all: they have their own petty and sadistic agenda..
For the next few days, Inman walks with the horsemen, not knowing where he’s headed. Slowly, other prisoners join then—other suspected deserters from the army. They’re given no food and little water. Inman fantasizes, deliriously, about escaping from the Home Guard. After a long time, the Guard orders the prisoners to stop. Some of the Guard members then raise their guns, point them at the prisoners, and fire. Inman feels a bullet hit him in the side of the head. He falls to the ground, dimly conscious, and hears someone shout, “Get them underground.” The group doesn’t exactly bury Inman and the other prisoners—they just throw some dirt over them and ride off. When the Guard is gone, Inman climbs out from the dirt, and then loses all consciousness.
Inman again comes close to dying, but miraculously survives—one could say he’s reborn from the dirt. While it may seem odd that Inman can survive being shot, it’s worth recalling that guns weren’t as precise or powerful then as they are today—it’s entirely possible that a gun misfired, or shot a bad bullet. Perhaps more to the point, Frazier portrays Inman as an otherworldly, even superhuman character, capable of fighting off three opponents at once or surviving a hail of bullets. His survival, then, isn’t intended to be realistic at all, but rather symbolic.
When Inman regains consciousness, he finds himself staring at a huge wild boar. Inman climbs to his feet, noticing that his head is bleeding. He notices that Veasey is lying on the ground, dead, but he feels little sympathy for his companion. Inman begins to walk back to the road.
Whatever sympathy Inman had for Veasey while Veasey was alive has seemingly vanished. This again suggests that Inman only cared about Veasey because Veasey was a companion to him, but also that Inman’s experience of violence continues to make him colder and more traumatized.
After hours of walking, Inman comes to a “yellow” slave, who is herding some bulls down the road. The slave calls Inman a “dirt man,” but offers him a melon, which Inman eats eagerly. The slave also advises Inman on how to get back to his home: walk toward the Blue Ridge mountains and then go south. The slave explains that his master taught him how to read, write, and navigate, and Inman is impressed. He reaches for his money to pay the slave for his help, but then realizes that his possessions are back on Junior’s property.
In this deus ex machina moment, Inman is given help for free. The slave who helps Inman is an almost magical character, who suits the surreal tone of this chapter. That Inman has left his possessions behind reminds us why Junior lures deserters into his home: he wants to steal their property under the guise of patriotism.
The chapter cuts ahead a few nights: Inman is standing outside Junior’s house, preparing to sneak inside. He throws a bone to a dog to distract in, then rushes toward the house. Outside, he sees the knapsack he left, which contains his gun, and all his money. He finds that the knapsack’s contents are still there, except for Veasey’s gun. Looking up, Inman sees Junior nearby. Junior approaches Inman, seeming not to know who it is. When Junior is close enough, Inman rushes toward him and hits him in the head with the butt of his gun. He beats Junior again and again, until Junior is covered in blood, and doesn’t stir. Then Inman walks into the distance.
It would appear that Inman murders Junior both as an act of personal vengeance and (perhaps) to protect others from Junior’s monstrous activities. Even if Inman commits murder here, it’s hard for us to sympathize with Junior, who is the most unambiguously evil character in the book. Inman, however, is becoming colder and more violent as his quest goes on—his twisted experiences along the road seem to be further robbing him of humanity.
The next day, Inman is still walking along the road, away from Junior. He sees a flock of crows flying above him, and notices that they’re circling close to a snake. The snake tries to hiss and defend itself from the birds, but to no avail—the crows attack it. Inman imagines the crows blackening out the sky completely.
As Frazier clearly intends, it’s impossible to read this passage without imagining some interpretation for it (just as Ruby sees crows and tries to interpret them). Perhaps the snake symbolizes Inman—always under attack from people like Junior or the Home Guard—or perhaps the snake symbolizes America itself, being torn apart from all sides. Inman also seems to be psychologically regressing here—retreating into a space of traumatic numbness, similar to the one he entered immediately after the war.