Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Day the Laughter Died: Remembering Lewis Nordan, the Clown Prince of Southern Lit

For the better part of twenty years, I carried Lewis Nordan around with me like a beautiful, restless agony.  Though I tried to tell everyone I met he was the greatest writer they’d never read, the agonizing truth was I pretty much had him all to myself.  He was the author of seven books of fiction and a memoir (Boy with Loaded Gun), each one of them gems of humor and heartbreak that stood tall with other giants of Southern literature.  I myself have been known to pepper my sentences with the names “O’Connor” and “Nordan” side by side like fraternal twins.  From the day I read my first Nordan short story, I knew I’d found someone special to treasure and hoard in my heart.  The fact that I can remember the exact month (October) and year (1992) when my eyes first lit on Nordan’s words should tell you something.  My memory’s getting fuzzy as moldy Swiss cheese these days, but that first encounter was a Memorable Life Event—the kind I’ll never forget, like my first kiss or the day I stuck a damp tongue into a lamp socket.

Beyond a circle of devoted, rabid fans, Lewis Nordan was relatively unknown.  Critics ate him up with a spoon: “As if the worlds of William Faulkner and James Thurber had collided” (The Associated Press) and “An immense and wall-shattering display of talent” (The Nation).  But, maddeningly, the Clown Prince of Southern Literature never enjoyed the wide readership he deserved.  Now, sadly, he is gone from us.  Lewis Nordan—“Buddy” to everyone lucky enough to call him a friend and teacher—died of complications from pneumonia two weeks ago, slipping away peacefully and without pain, according to postings by family members on his Facebook Wall.

This has been a tough season for fans of Southern literature—first William Gay passes on, then Harry Crews, and now Buddy Nordan.  It was Buddy’s death that hit me hardest, though.  It felt personal and cruel because here was a half-obscure literary hero I’d advocated with all the fervor of a Baptist preacher gettin’ his Jesus on at a tent revival.  Lewis Nordan taken from us?  No, no, no.  It was to the book world what the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper were to the rock ’n roll world.  Friday, April 13, 2012 will forever be known to me as The Day the Laughter Died.

Upon hearing the news of Nordan’s passing, I was struck by a tidal wave of melancholy.  The only cure and salve was to reach for one of his books, open it, and start reading at random—a story like “How Bob Steele Broke My Father’s Heart,” for instance:
Naughty demons accompanied my father wherever he went.  All misery did not seem to be of his own making.  In his home, the telephone often rang with no one on the line.  Hoses broke on the Maytag.  Pipes froze in the spring.  Pets came down with diseases they had been inoculated against.  Wrestling and “The Love Boat” appeared on television at unscheduled times.  Lightning struck our house and sent a fireball across the floor.  He was the only man in Mississippi to buy a bottle of Tylenol that actually had a cyanide capsule in it.  He went to only two high school baseball games in his life and was beaned by a foul ball at each of them.  A homeless person died on his back stoop.  When he walked down the street bluejays chased after him and pecked at his face.  He was allergic to the dye in his underwear.  He mistakenly accepted a collect obscene phone call. This sounds like a joke or an exaggeration, but I swear it is not.  There was something magical about the amount of benign bad luck that, on a daily basis, swept through my father’s life like weather and judgment.

Sentences like those remind me why I became a writer in the first place—the burning itch to turn words into music and give readers a jolt of joy, a thrill not unlike licking a lamp-socket so long and hard that the very fillings in your teeth rattle and dislodge.

Lewis Nordan’s fiction, to put it bluntly, could pop the teeth right out of my head.  He was an unsung genius at taking the most miserable human condition and slathering it with a layer of laughter.  Sometimes it was a very thin layer—that divide between the awful and the awful funny—as with, for instance, his most famous work, the 1993 novel Wolf Whistle which was a fictional retelling of the story of Emmett Till, the young black boy murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman in 1955.  The Emmett Till story was a very personal one for Nordan because he grew up in the same place at the same time as the murdered teen and was haunted by the crime all his life.  When he finally set it down on paper, it proved to be his richest, deepest work, told from a multitude of perspectives, including that of the lynched victim himself:
The dead boy saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music, as living boys, still sleeping, unaware, in their safe beds, might hear singing from unexpected throats one morning when they wake up, the wind in a willow shade, bream bedding in the shallows of a lake, a cottonmouth hissing on a limb, the hymning of beehives, of a bird’s nest, the bray of the ice-man’s mule, the cry of herons or mermaids in the swamp, and rain across wide water.

Buddy was one of those lucky writers who early in his career found a comfortable publishing home for his books and never left.  The names "Lewis Nordan" and "Algonquin Books" were the literary equivalent of "hand and glove."  Yesterday, marketing director Craig Popelars shared his memories of Buddy in a touching blog post, including this fine summation of his prankster style:
Reading Lewis Nordan is an act of defiance. His stories are swollen with life, death, and a deep love of the Delta and its people. He was a writer who simultaneously kept a reader’s heart and head in his cross-hairs. He was confident with his aim, knew when to pull the trigger, understood the trajectory, and he cared deeply for each of his victims. Buddy was an amalgamation of Flannery O’Connor, Lenny Bruce, Pinocchio, and Houdini. If there was an opportunity to dance, peek up a girl’s dress, throw M80 fireworks off a front porch, or run bare-assed through a hotel lobby you could count on Buddy’s participation. He was that hole in heaven where some sin slips through.

My life intersected with Lewis Nordan’s only once.  In October 1992, I was introduced to both the man and his writings at the same time when he visited the campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where I was enrolled in the MFA program.  My thesis advisor, short-story writer Frank Soos, pulled me aside one day and said, “You must come hear Lewis Nordan read.  You must.  He writes stories like no one else and I think you’ll appreciate him.”  He said it like he had a secret gem glowing in his chest, like he was giving me an exclusive invitation to a men’s club on cream-colored stationery presented on a silver platter.  What was especially striking is that Frank said it with a note of urgency in his voice.  Which was odd.  Frank is tall and thin as a lamppost and, a laid-back Southerner himself, speaks in a slow, measured drawl.  For Frank to be all out of breath about someone was like a screeching alarm, flashing red lights and a missile silo’s doors coming open.

I immediately did the 100-yard dash to the campus bookstore and bought every book Lewis Nordan had written up to that point.  I went home, ignored my wife, refused to build a Lego castle with my sons, and turned to the first page of Music of the Swamp.  It was a religious experience.
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.

No, it was my own world which was blossoming open.  Here was a writer who’d already published three books, books that spoke to me in highly personal and thrilling ways, but why had I never heard of him?  I read on without stopping—not even when my wife threw sharp glances in my direction and my kids cried at how oddly misshapen their castle turned out to be.  I read all the way through Music of the Swamp in a one-sitting gorge, burping lightly, happily when I was finished.

Though it’s labeled by publisher Algonquin Books as “a novel,” Music of the Swamp is actually a collection of linked short stories which 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, I met 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—as I’ve already noted—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 heart-crushing 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.

By the time Nordan arrived in Alaska a week later, I’d chomped my way through Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair and The All-Girl Football Team, cackling and crying in equal measures.  I’d found my literary soul-mate.

But what do you say to your soul-mate when you actually meet him in person?  If you’re like me, you stammer and trip over your words and generally make a fool of yourself.  Nordan came to our graduate writing workshop and talked about craft and the story behind his stories and why writing is both struggle and triumph.  And then—Willy Wonka Golden Ticket Moment—he sat down with some of us for a one-on-one critique of our stories.

When I entered the room where he sat at a table with my manuscript pages spread before him, we were both shy and awkward.  I sweaty-palmed a handshake and he started in on my story with the kindest, softest voice I’d ever heard come from a man.  Ask any of his many students at the University of Pittsburgh and they will agree: Lewis Nordan was a wise, polite mentor who always made you feel bigger than your shoe size.  You walk out of a one-on-one session with him and I guaran-damn-tee you’ll have a hard time fitting through the doorway, your head is so swollen with self-confidence as a writer.

Now here’s where the Swiss cheese of memory becomes frustratingly fuzzy: I don’t remember what Nordan said about my story, or even what story it was.  At the time, I was going through a Flannery O’Connor phase so maybe it was my story where a man takes a road trip with his mother and has an epiphany when he finds a black-velvet painting of Jesus at a truck stop.  Whatever it was, I remember Buddy Nordan had high words of praise (in hindsight, probably unnecessarily high) for my writing.  I can’t recall exactly what he said because my head was clanging with the sound of church bells and angel choirs.  Later, he signed my copy of Music of the Swamp with these words: “To David—a wonderful writer in this magical landscape.”  I could have done any number of things upon seeing those words: burst out singing an operatic aria, wet myself, or swooned away in a dead faint.  But as I recall, I stuttered a thanks and, eyes a-shine with gratitude, slunk away in a fit of pleasurable embarrassment.

Over the years my debt of gratitude to Buddy Nordan has only increased—not just for that burst of ego at the beginning of my writing career, but mostly for the gift of story he shared with the world.  Our lives are richer because he gave us swamp mermaids who sing into black, fathomless mirrors; fathers who look forward to that one time of year when they can dress in drag at the Womanless Wedding; where boys go fishing for chickens in their back yard; where the next-door neighbors are a family of midget construction workers; and where, forever and always, America is the “Land of the Freak and the Home of the Strange.”

I often tell people that Nordan is the only writer I know who can break your heart while herniating you with laughter.  As a character in Wolf Whistle says, “There is great pain in all true love…but we don’t care do we, because it’s worth it.”

With Buddy’s death comes great pain, the kind of pain we find in the wrench of blues songs, but in the end I know it was worth it because there is the solace of what we’re left with—the eight books we can return to again and again, books which put us on board the Funny Train to the Land of Odd, books filled with singing llamas and competitive arrow-catching and boys who believe they’re apples, books which are tender and compassionate and cause us to right away get up from the couch, hug our wives and help our sons rebuild castles.

A version of this essay originally appeared at Book Riot.

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