There is no greater joy than discovering a new writer, for it justifies the thumb’s mileage, the ho-hum trudge through lifeless prose. There are those missteps, those false glimmers of promise and then the inevitable dissatisfaction. There is a lot of mediocrity and pretension out there. One of life’s cruelties for the reader is the uncertainty that they will ever find their writer. A second cruelty – and I’m saying this as a writer – is that they do meet their writer. In my experience of the latter type of cruelty, I have encountered a select few writers, writers who convey a language and experience so alien to me, so admirable, that I know that I could never write something like that, or would want to, and that’s fine by me. But then I learn, to my dismay, that they are longer with us. It happened to me with Michael Dibdin, with Larry Brown, and it happened again recently; it’s bittersweet. Meet Lewis Nordan.
I don’t know how or why, but the American South has produced some of the most astonishing writers. I don’t know whether it is some occult confluence of stars and soil and water, along with the awful legacy of slavery that has given us blues and spirituals, but there is no escaping the fact that southern writers, especially from Mississippi, use the English language in provocative ways. It could be hereditary: William Faulkner and Walker Percy were both from distinguished literary families. Just consider this list of living writers from Mississippi: Ace Atkins, Howard Bahr, Fredrick Barthelme, Richard Ford, Tom Franklin, Ellen Gilchrist, John Grisham, Charlaine Harris, Thomas Harris, Beth Henley, Greg Iles – and I haven’t even reached the midpoint of the alphabet. Let us state the obvious: every writer from Mississippi contends with the shadows of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. It’s unavoidable. Nordan was compared to them, Erskine Caldwell, and James Thurber.
Southern writers seem to turn phrases of the Queen’s English in ways that are odd, exotic and yet truthful. “There’s not a nickel’s worth of taste in a fly, even if you do happen to eat one” is one such phrase from the late Mr. Nordan. There is authenticity, economy, the simplistic and impish in that phrase. “Old as dirt and rich enough to burn a wet bull and all he can think to do is devil a bunch of children” is another one that makes the head cock. The wisdom that bubbles up throughout Nordan’s prose appears deceptive, homespun and eccentric, but it is wisdom borne out of attention to daily behavior, from a determination to laugh at no matter what life slings. Faulkner terrifies, O’Connor unsettles, but Nordan, like Welty, creates laughter, although he can write about the macabre. Eunuchs, a suppository-wielding attendant, midgets, a sin eater, wild dogs, and other freaks populate his fiction.
Mississippi. It has an ugly, ugly history: Till’s murder in 1955; the disappearance and subsequent murders of the three civil rights workers in 1964; the assassination of Medgar Evers in his driveway in 1967. The Confederate Stars and Bars remain on the state flag. In 1964, Nina Simone provided the public with an angry, but accurate, portrait of Mississippi’s racial violence. Lewis Nordan befriended Emmett Till’s mother and he knew the men who killed him. He had said in an interview that it took him a long time to be able to write about violence. His novel Wolf Whistle from 1993 revisits the infamous murder. While not quite the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez or the Shakespearean sprawl of Faulkner, Whistle has talking vultures that witnessed the Civil War, a murder trial, town drunks, and a teacher who takes her fourth-grade class on a tour of a funeral home. It is not easy reading.
Nordan’s literary career began at age forty-five with the publication of his first collection of stories, Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair, in 1983. His second collection, The All-Girl Football Team, appeared in 1986. Before Nordan died in 2012 at the age of seventy-two he had written four novels, one memoir, and two volumes of short stories, which are difficult to find, but a selection from them exists in Sugar Among the Freaks (1996) from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. In the introductory essay to Sugar, Richard Howorth describes Nordan’s narrative strategy as “inverted truth”. In “Rat Song” a daughter’s affection for two pet rats unsettles her father because he perceives rats as nasty, disease-bearing vermin. Dad struggles. Domesticated rats are affectionate and loyal pets, so I have been told, but I also have a vivid memory of my grandfather doing battle with a feral black rat that stood on it hind legs ready to box with a shovel. Is “Rat Song” a metaphor for prejudice? In another story, “One-Man Band,” a preacher arrives at a wake and confronts a grieving young man who finds no solace in religion. Again, it is the adult versus the child. Pilkington assumes that the boy doesn’t understand grief, but at the end of the story Preacher realizes that he has spent his entire life avoiding grief. Lewis “Buddy” Nordan shares with T.C. Boyle the predilection for the way-out-there and the subversive.
In “The All-Girl Football Team,” Nordan reverses cultural and gender stereotypes. A young boy and his father – another prevalent theme throughout his works – like to cross-dress. The father, a real man’s man, educates his son on exfoliation, bras, makeup, dresses and slips, and wigs. In the fictional town of Arrow Catcher men dressing in drag is accepted and, during football season, girls are on the football team while the boys are on the sideline as cheerleaders in skirts and pom-poms. The girls are coarse, insensitive jocks, and our cheerleader boy pines and lusts for them at first, until he realizes that what he desires is Beauty, to feel beautiful. He envies womanhood. In one hilarious scene, he finds himself attracted to the football coach because the man exudes authority, charisma, and the tragic, when the team loses. Our young hero panics and thinks he is a lesbian! As the story progresses – and Nordan’s prose is evocative for anyone who had football games in their childhood – there is this realization that what adults know is the essence of childhood captured in amber:
Suddenly I knew that my father was right, that I did feel beautiful, except that now beauty had a different meaning for me. It meant that I was who I was, the core of me, the perfect center, and that the world was who it was and that those two facts were unchangeable. Grief had no sting, the future was not a thing to fear, all things were possible and pure.
Martha Lacy Hall discovered Nordan, and saw to it that Louisiana State University Press published him; but sales languished, although praise and prizes slowly mounted. Hall shuttled Nordan over to Vintage Contemporaries but the sales just did not happen. Serious praise from critics and a respect from other writers made Lewis Nordan the writer few people knew or read. Nordan wrote about underdogs because he was one. He kept writing. He was teaching creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh when his son committed suicide. Nordan would write his way through depression and publish again. Then, death came. In the short space of three months, the American South lost three talented writers: Harry Crews and William Gay in February 2012, and Lewis Nordan, in April. The following words could have been his epitaph:
I was a boy in costume for one night of the year, and I was my father’s child and the child of this strange southern geography, I was beautiful, and also wise and sad and somehow doomed with joy.