Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Southern-Fried Opera: In Which I Sing the Praises of Lewis Nordan

Sometimes, it's best just to throw all critical restraint and impartiality out the window and give in to drooly fanboy urges.  Such is the case with this review of Lewis Nordan's Music of the Swamp which I wrote more than ten years ago.  This is not the last, best word I can write on Nordan--that appreciation, with the bulk and critical heft of a master's thesis, is somewhere down the road; but since I just finished reading George Singleton's Why Dogs Chase Cars and that collection of linked short stories is like the kissing cousin to Music of the Swamp and because I'm in a fanboy kind of mood this morning, I thought I'd blow the dust off this old review and bring to your attention the merits and delights of Mr. Lewis Nordan, a man I like to call The Best Writer You've Never Read.

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In affairs of the heart, you never forget your first kiss.

In affairs of literature, you never forget the moment you discover a great writer and he plants a big ole wet one on your lips. You sit there holding the book, staring at the page, your heart racing and you just know it’s gotta be love. The swoony, cartoon-birds-fluttering-around-your-head variety. It may be a short story, a memoir or a novel—doesn’t matter. It’s the words on the page that have set you all a-flutter and made you want to run to the nearest rooftop and sing a mini-opera: “I’m in love! I’m in L-O-V-E!”

I can remember the exact moment my heart went pit-a-pat. It was the winter of 1992. In my hands, I held a book by a writer I’d never heard of. His name? Lewis Nordan. The book? Music of the Swamp.

“Hmm,” I thought, “sounds like the title from a really bad 1950s monster movie.” Then I opened the collection of short stories and started reading:

The instant Sugar Mecklin opened his eyes on that Sunday morning, he believed that this was a special day and that something new and completely different from anything he had ever known before was about to jump out at him from somewhere unexpected, a willow shade, a beehive, a bird’s nest, the bream beds in Roebuck Lake, a watermelon patch, the bray of the iceman’s mule, the cry of herons in the swamp, he did not know from where, but wherever it came from he believed it would be transforming, it would open up worlds to him that before today had been closed. In fact, worlds seemed already to be opening to him.
In fact, it was my world that had just opened. I'd discovered the nation’s most overlooked, under-read and under-appreciated literary gem. Which is not to say that Nordan does not have fans; they are legion and they are rabid (like me).  But he has never gotten the national literary attention he deserves. He’ll probably never be Oprah-ed (perish the thought) and I’ve yet to see him interviewed on Good Morning, America, but surely a big ole display at the front entrance of Barnes and Noble wouldn’t be out of line.

On with the opera roof-singing...

And sing is exactly what Nordan does on every page of Music of the Swamp. The cover of the book calls it a “novel,” but it’s only a novel in the same way that Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a novel. It’s really a collection of short stories, each a rollickingly funny self-contained capsule that can be read one at a time. And, though you’ll want to read Nordan all in one big gulp, you’ll need to sip it slow--you’ll be laughing so hard you need to catch your breath between stories. (I’ve often thought Nordan’s books should come with a Surgeon General’s WARNING: Reading this could be hazardous to your health. If you experience dizzy spells, a sore abdomen or shortness of breath, put the book down and sit a spell.)

In Music of the Swamp, the stories relate the oddball childhood of Nordan’s most frequently-used character, Sugar Mecklin, an 11-year-old narrator who, I suspect, serves as a funnel for all of Nordan’s own boyhood experiences growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Sugar lives in Arrow Catcher (Nordan’s Yoknapatawpha), a Mississippi Delta community populated with Southern-fried characters straight from Nordan’s literary predecessors (Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers). Here, you’ll meet folks like Sweet Austin, who takes Sugar out to the swamp and shows him a man’s corpse caught upside down in a tangle of brush; Gilbert Mecklin, Sugar’s lovable, whiskey-drinking, no-good daddy who listens to Bessie Smith records (“wrist-cutting music”), who advises his son, “The Delta is filled up with death” and whose life is filled with “benign bad luck;” Dixie Dawn McNeer, who “was overweight and wore heavy makeup and had a pathetically angelic look about her” and who dreams of singing soprano at the Met someday (the heartbreaking story of her birthday party is the best in the whole collection); and the white-trash family named Conroy, whose next-to-youngest member, Roy Dale, is Sugar’s best friend. The mini-portrait of the family is classic Nordan:

There was a passel of Conroy children, all red-haired and sunken-cheeked. I was never really sure how many. There were the twin girls, Cloyce and Joyce, children who spoke in unison. There was a misfit child named Jeff Davis who believed his pillow was on fire. And, of course, there was the boy near my age, Roy Dale, and a very young child, about four, named Douglas, whose only ambition when he grew up was to become an apple.
Nordan is the only writer I know who can break your heart while herniating you with laughter. In this all-too-short collection of stories, there is sweetness, there is sadness, there is laughter. But most of all, there is the music of words. Nordan’s prose tumbles off the page in a breathless rush not unlike Faulkner’s. And, just like that distinguished Southern gentleman, Nordan cares deeply about his characters. Every one of them is described in a compact portrait—often riotously funny, but always deeply-felt.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Nordan to everyone I meet [in fact, I’ve been known to chase strangers down the street, beating them about the head with softcover copies of his novels until they relent and either a) snatch the book from my hands and agree to read it, or b) give me a quarter for my troubles.] But, if you’re new to Nordan, then Music of the Swamp is as good a place as any to start. Lord knows, I did and I haven’t been the same since.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go up to the roof and start warming up.

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