Saturday, October 25, 2014

Laughter Salted With Tears: Boy With Loaded Gun by Lewis Nordan

It’s been too long since I last posted anything here about the late, great Lewis Nordan.  I try to bring him up in conversation at least once a year (more often, if I can), just to keep his flame alive.  The Funniest Writer You Never Read shuffled off this mortal coil in April 2012, and I’m still mourning his passing.  His publisher, Algonquin Books, has done a fine job of keeping the fire stoked with logs--including recently re-issuing some of his best works like Wolf Whistle and Music of the Swamp.  I was thinking about Buddy Nordan this morning as I browsed through the archive of my older, pre-Quivering Pen book reviews.  When I came across Boy With Loaded Gun, I remembered how much I enjoyed this memoir and thought I’d share it with you here.  This review, published elseweb about 14 years ago, was written long before Nordan died.  In re-reading it, my laughter is only more heavily salted with tears.

*     *     *

Behind every comic’s smile is a grimace of pain.  The laughter, the one-liners, the puns are there to mask the wounded heart, the losses, the disappointments, the self-doubts.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Lewis Nordan, he’ll tell you all about sorrow.  Then he’ll turn right around and spin a funny story to ease his marrow-deep pain.

Nordan is in a three-way race with Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor as the best American humorist alive.  We’re talking about someone who goes for the genuine, well-earned laugh.  Someone on the order of Mark Twain or Robert Benchley or James Thurber.  Smart writing that will have you rolling on the floor with laughter while you turn the pages (and most likely earn you a paper cut in the process).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you haven’t yet discovered Lewis Nordan, then you’re leading a pretty dull life.  In the last fifteen years, he’s written seven books—three novels, three short story collections and one that was a hybrid (related stories that formed a fairly smooth narrative).  All were set in the South and most featured a young character named Sugar Mecklin (really a thin disguise for Nordan himself).  Flat-out funny, every one of them.

But between the laughter, there were moments of deep tenderness, scenes of great heartbreak, whole passages that swept me up in lyrical beauty so that I sat back and exclaimed, “Well now!  This big ball of soil we call Earth is really populated with sweetness and light after all.”  That’s the effect Nordan has on me—one minute I’m choked with laughter, the next I’ve got a lump in my throat.

Now I realize those seven books were a prelude to what is probably the book Nordan considers his most important: Boy With Loaded Gun.  The book jacket calls it “a memoir,” but I’m not inclined to believe it’s all true.  In fact, Nordan himself begins the book with a droll conversation on the subject:
      I couldn’t decide whether to call this book a Memoir or not, so I put the problem to my wife. I said, “If you were working at the Library of Congress, how would you list this one?”
      She said, “Nordan, Lewis.”
      I said, “No, I mean—”
      She said, “ISBN whatever.”
      “Fiction or Nonfiction,” I said. “It seems to fall somewhere between the two.”
      She said, “You made up your memoir?”
      “Names mostly, you know.”
      She said, “You didn’t mention my name, did you?”
      “I changed your name, I changed all the names, that’s what I’m saying.”
      “If all you changed was names—”
      “And conversations. I made up some conversations.”
      “Still—I’d say Memoir.”
      “And maybe I exaggerated some stuff too. Some of the painful stuff, death and like that.”
Needless to say, I kept my shaker of salt handy while reading Boy With Loaded Gun.  What to believe, what to disbelieve?  Well, certainly the most hilarious parts—the anecdotes of his childhood, the caricatures of the folks back in his hometown of Itta Bena, Mississippi—read like something out of his fiction.

Here’s how he describes himself as a fifth-grader:
I could fold back my eyelids and bend all my fingers at the first joint and throw both my thumbs out of joint. I lighted farts with a Zippo lighter I had won at a carnival, as boys my age crowded near to see the blue streak fly out of the seat of my pants. At the same carnival I paid a full dollar to enter a tent where a so-called flatulence artist plied his strange trade. I was astonished and impressed, even inspired, by his ability to blow out a series of candles from across the room. I wanted to be like him. Secretly I hoped his vocation might someday be mine.
His parents order the household’s first TV and he gets so excited, he dons his Superman cape, leaps off his porch and falls flat on his face.

He goes to New York City to meet the beatniks, checks into a fleabag hotel, gets up to use the shared bathroom down the hall, then discovers he’s locked himself out of the room.  Did I mention he was naked as a jaybird?

He meets his father’s first lover—a midget.

And so on, all of it funny and a little sad and wistful.

But then the tale turns dark.  There are deaths, betrayals, adulteries, more deaths, alcoholism, divorce and more adulteries.  If we are to believe that what’s on these pages is the truth—or, at least, the truth filtered through his brain’s Fiction Sieve—then Nordan is to be commended for his courage.  It is painful to watch him peel back the scab that covers all the wrong-headed things he’s done in his life.

Once the scab is gone, the healing begins.  I get the feeling that writing Boy With Loaded Gun was cathartic for Nordan, that he’d waited years to squeeze this poison out of his system.

I don’t think this is his best book (read Wolf Whistle or The Sharpshooter Blues for examples of classic Nordan).  It’s episodic and, here and there, reads like something out of a 12-step program.  It certainly won’t appeal to readers who can’t bear to watch a man destroy himself with drink and adultery.  Once the laughter fades, there is only squirming left.

But, as I said before, there are moments of throat-lump beauty between these covers.  The chapters “The Man I Killed” and “A Body in the River” especially moved me.

Through it all, there is Nordan’s distinct voice—something like a cross between William Faulkner and Lake Wobegon.  I think Boy With Loaded Gun would be most successful as an audio book—but only if read by the author himself.  I once had the pleasure of hearing Nordan read the New York City episode (the one where he gets locked out of his room, then wraps himself in toilet paper to cover his nakedness) while it was still a work-in-progress.  I only caught every other sentence.  The laughter in the room kept drowning him out.

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