Joe Rhodes pulls off the nearly impossible in “How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze,” an edgy New York Times magazine piece. He takes a horrific event—the murder of a family member, an elderly aunt living in a tiny Texas town—and somehow makes it funny. Not just gently amusing, but the kind of thing that makes you spew coffee onto the keyboard and call out to your spouse, “Baby, you have GOT to read this.”

I know, because that’s just what I did the first (and second and third) times I read the well-timed surprises, the violence, the flat-out weirdness of it all. It’s a great, risk-taking story because it works on several levels at once—crime story, Southern gothic tall tale, my life with Shirley MacLaine—and because Rhodes walks a tightrope of good taste.

The trick that makes this pony work is tone. It’s not accomplished by words on the page, but by an overall approach to the subject. It’s the work you do before typing. This is farce, as Rhodes will eventually acknowledge, but let’s see how he does it.

Neely Tucker

Neely Tucker

First, he starts off with a straightforward, two-paragraph lede that gives away the entire plot. Bernie is a new film, he writes, a dark comedy about Bernie Tiede, a beloved church choir director and mortician in Carthage, Texas, who befriends a rich, ornery widow. Bernie (using the first-name basis to break down the journalistic formality) eventually shoots the widow in the back, stuffs the corpse in a freezer and then, for nine months, uses her millions to give people in town stuff they’ve always wanted. Planes. Jet skis. Cars.

By this point in the story, Rhodes has already undermined the way these tales usually are told. This is a horrible crime, but he describes Bernie, the killer, as “sweet-natured and gregarious, a lover of show tunes and Jesus.” People in town love the killer so much the prosecutor has to ask for a change of venue in order to find jurors who’ll vote to convict. Clearly, the world is off its axis, and the movie’s advertising bills it as “so unbelievable it must be true.”

Rhodes then establishes his credentials:

Which it is. I know this because the widow in the freezer was, in real life, my Aunt Marge, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, my mother’s sister and, depending on whom you ask, the meanest woman in East Texas.

In that last clause, Rhodes slipped in the required second note in the farce: If the killer isn’t bad, well, the victim isn’t all that good. You have to have both elements for this to work. Elmore Leonard pulled this trick for decades. It sets up a story line in which you’re not sure whose side you’re on.

Before we go any further, there’s another stereotype Rhodes is playing with here: that of the small-town Southern eccentric. This is a weary cliché. In 1960, Flannery O’Connor was already tired of it, writing in an influential essay, “I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” This is the same essay in which she observed, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Notice how Rhodes handles this. He’s from here, he writes, so we understand he’s not a big-city tourist taking cheap shots at the yokels. And then, before he makes a list of the local color, he writes “really did” or “really were.” In two words, he confronts the stereotype and gives the reader a wink that he’s aware of it—but, hey, Bernie really is a freak and Aunt Marge really was mean and this really is how it went down:

The trial lawyers really did wear Stetsons and cowboy boots and really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. Daddy Sam’s barbecue and bail bonds, just a few blocks from the courthouse in Carthage (population: 6,700), really does have a sign that says, “You Kill It, I’ll Cook It!” And they really did find my Aunt Marge on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken potpies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. They had to wait two days to do the autopsy. It took her that long to thaw.

Like a lot of great writing, this is actually great reporting. Details are to writing what eroticism is to sex: the thing that can make it great. Daddy Sam’s barbeque (with that great sign), the Marie Callender’s pot pies, the Lands’ End sheet, the two days for the body to thaw.

Aunt Marge really was, Rhodes goes on to say, a pretty awful human being. It’s never nice to speak ill of the dead, but he does, flouting another social and journalistic rule. This is another surprise, but it’s necessary because it explains his tone, why he’s taking this approach to the story. Marge had alienated her entire family. She had a lifelong history of being pretentious and nasty, telling people “in no uncertain terms, why you weren’t good enough or smart enough or otherwise worthy of her time. She used it on salesclerks, on waiters, on farmhands, housekeepers and cooks. She used it on my parents. She used it on me.”

When he was 14, he writes,

she locked me in her house for two days and wouldn’t let me call home. Finally, when Aunt Marge went to the grocery store, the maid, sympathetic to my plight, unlocked the bedroom door so I could get to the phone and beg my mother to come rescue me. She did. That was the last time I went to Aunt Marge’s house.

Rhodes goes on to say that Aunt Marge made up lies about his parents in an attempt to get their daughter from them. His mother is quoted as saying, “I used to think she was the devil on earth.” Another sibling, Aunt Sue, says, when informed of Marge’s death, “What a relief.”

This all sets up Bernie as a good man in a bad spot—until the story hits another level, when Rhodes goes to interview him in prison. This story could not work without this interview, because it’s the emotional crux of the tale: The victim’s family member confronting the killer. By default, we’re expecting an angry showdown. Instead, we get another twist:

He started crying as soon as he saw me. We were on opposite sides of a glass window, just as in every prison movie you’ve ever seen. Five minutes into the conversation, after he asked me, “How’s your mama doing?” the guards decided it would be all right for us to be in the same room.

“How’s your mama doing?” How great (and how Southern) is that? Bernie not only sits for the interview, but hugs the interviewer! He acknowledges that he shot Aunt Marge, says that he was partly in it for the money, and says “I deserve to be in prison. Of course I do.”

But, in the very next sentence, there is one final twist: Bernie’s narcissism, his self-pity and pathology, the very things that led to the shooting, is revealed. It turns out Bernie really doesn’t think he should be in prison: “There are people in here who have done things more heinous than I can imagine in my wildest dreams, and they’ll be going home before I do.” And this triumphant note, speaking of his eligibility for parole:

“Every day I want to go home. And one of these days, they’re gonna let me.”

Whoa, the reader in me said. Crimes more heinous than shooting an 81-year-old woman in the back? With her own gun? And taking her millions? Suddenly, after sort of feeling sorry for Bernie, I wanted to scream at him, “ARE YOU NUTS, MAN?” And then it dawned on me: Of course he is. That’s why he’s behind bars. Talk about showing rather than telling: Rhodes never made a judgment in the story. He just quoted the man.

After this emotional high point, Rhodes confronts the edge that makes the story work: Is it okay to be laughing at this? He answers in the affirmative, again by underlining the absurdity of it all:

Besides which, the whole thing felt like farce from the moment it happened, even to the family. I mean, seriously, under the chicken potpies? Shot and then frozen by the nicest man in town, who spent her money to finance the Boot Scootin’ Western Wear store (and also, it turned out, some German gay porn)? How is that not funny?

He ends with a scene between his mother and MacLaine, who plays Aunt Marge in the film. Hugging MacClaine allows his mother, and us, a moment of peace and a relieved smile.

Funny, biting, edgy, touching: Really, what more do you want?

Neely Tucker is a staff writer at the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. He is the author of Love in the Driest Season, a memoir, and The Ways of the Dead, a novel published this month by Viking.

Texas Monthly‘s Skip Hollandsworth on writing his own “Bernie” piece
—The TM piece itself, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas
—Bernie was paroled in May and is now living with the director of Bernie.

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