Protest the Rising Tide of Intolerance

As Crass Casualty and Dicing Time[1] would have it, in the week of my wife’s memorial service, I have to box up the contents of my classroom for a move to a brand new Upper School building.

This chore is especially taxing because when I moved into a former colleague’s room a quarter a century ago, he asked if he could keep some of his books in the room, which were housed in three enormous bookcases that belonged personally to him. I said, sure. He eventually died without heirs. His collection includes some of his late mother’s books as well. There are inscriptions. “To Catherine S____________ 1925.”

Of course, I also have books, 31 years worth, not to mention file cabinets gorged with quizzes, study guides, lecture notes, honor contracts, resumes, book order receipts, etc.

So I’m in the process of sifting through the contents, recycling, shredding, and yesterday I discovered this anti-bullying speech I gave to the Upper School during the first Clinton Administration. I don’t know the exact date, maybe 1994. At any rate, I haven’t altered the text, so some of the allusions may seem odd or anachronistic.

At any rate, I think the speech holds up fairly well, so why not expose it to a wider audience than the 300 or so who originally heard it?  I doubt if it will alter the behavior of bone fide bullies (like our current president), but it could offer the victims of bullies some solace.

I’ve also included the video clips that accompanied the speech.


 

 

[Note the original movie clip went a bit longer and depicted an older nurse who delivers the food the younger nurse was incapable of providing.]

John Merrick, the Elephant Man, is, of course, an extreme example of someone being shunned because of the way he looks, but we all know that every day all types of people are excluded for all types of reasons — it might be their race, their looks, the way they talk, their sexual orientation, the way they dress.  I took a poll of my classes and discovered that 100% of my students, every single individual, has been made fun of here at Porter-Gaud, and I mean maliciously.  I suspect everybody in this auditorium has been shunned, been put down at one time or another, been made fun of.  We all know what it feels like, and it doesn’t feel good.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Maya Angelou, perhaps America’s most famous living poet.  She was being interviewed by David Frost on PBS.  Maya Angelou is black and grew up in segregated Arkansas.  So like John Merrick, she knows what it’s like to be excluded.  Growing up as a little girl in Arkansas, she probably wouldn’t have been able to see the movie The Elephant Man because of the color of her skin.

When Maya Angelou was only 10-years-old, she was raped.  After the rape, she refused to talk for over a year.  Her pain was so terrible she couldn’t give voice to it.  She remained silent, mute. I guess sort of like John Merrick, she couldn’t find the words she needed.

Fortunately, she eventually did find her voice and became a poet.  In a poem she read at President Clinton’s inauguration, she linked humankind to extinct species such as dinosaurs and mastodons and voiced her concern that we may follow in their footsteps and become “lost in the gloom of dust and ages.”  She sees a real danger in fragmentation.  She writes

[. . .] the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

And what is the tree saying?

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

In the interview, David Frost asks Maya Angelou what the poem means, and she says, “It means we have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.”

We have to stop minimizing other people’s lives.

Look at John Merrick.  The Elephant Man.  An extreme case, as I said, but look how others minimized him.  In the movie, the doctor Treves at first is more interested in John as a specimen than he is as human, but at least he treats him humanely.  The younger nurse is so weak a person she runs like a child when she sees “the elephant man.”  Runs screaming out of the room. [The following references don’t appear in the above clip].  Did you notice the second, older nurse?  She never makes eye contact with Merrick.  That’s what people do when they are uncomfortable; either they avoid eye contact, or they giggle, or both.  This older nurse is beyond the giggling stage so instead she stays busy making the bed and talks about Merrick as if he were an idiot or weren’t there.

She is minimizing his life.

The head of the hospital is eager to get rid of Merrick.  He is minimizing Merrick’s life.  And not only John Merrick’s life, but his very own life.  Because as it turns out, John Merrick possessed an extraordinary soul.  His indomitable spirit has made him famous — the stuff of biographies, plays, movies.  The head of the hospital would have been long forgotten if he had not encountered John Merrick.  And how will the head of the hospital be remembered in these biographies, plays, and movies?  His legacy lies in how he treated John Merrick.  And I suspect that’s how we will be remembered after we leave Porter-Gaud.  Others will remember us in light of how we treated them.

Now, this assembly’s not really about John Merrick.  it’s about us — about you and me — and how we treat people.  Do we minimize other people in the mistaken belief that we “grow” when we “put them down?”

That we grow when we exclude someone from our group?

Let’s face it.  Everyone has weak points. We may be great at volleyball but lousy in math.  Great in math but hopeless in history.  We all have features we’re self-conscious about. Frankly, I’d just as soon not be bald, but like John Merrick, I didn’t have the luxury of choosing my parents. Nobody does.

Genetics deals us our facial features, our body types, our athletic prowess (or lack thereof), our intellectual potential, and even, according to the latest studies, our sexual orientation.  We have no control over our parents’ wealth.  Whether or not they’re getting divorced.  Where we were born.

Of course, it’s really no mystery why people harass and pick on others.  It’s obviously to compensate for low self esteem.  Inevitably cowardice is also involved.  Bullies rarely pick on the golden boy star quarterback who looks as if he’s stepped off the cover of Seventeen Magazine and sports 1550 SAT scores.  The victims are going to be someone younger, smaller, less popular.

So when we hear somebody cutting someone else down, we ought to tell him or her to quit. We’ll be doing, not only the victim a favor, but also the bully a favor, because frankly, he’s making an ass out of himself.  To those who see through the psychology, it’s embarrassing. Moreover, in doing nothing when we see unkindness occur we are abetting the creation of a climate that allows bullying  to flourish.

We should be the heroes, not the villains, in the movies of our lives.

Of course, cutting people down isn’t the only way we can minimize their lives.  Sometimes we shut others out because they are different.  Ignoring someone is also minimizing his or her life. It’s obviously not as bad as being overtly cruel, but we do actually cheat ourselves when we hide in our little homogenous groups.

Let me give you an example.

I have a friend, Josephine Humphreys, who is a somewhat famous novelist.  She wrote Rich in Love, a novel on the 9th grade reading list.  You older students and faculty members might remember that her son Willy actually played Merrick in a senior play production of The Elephant Man a couple of years ago.  Anyway, Jo grew up South of Broad, grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended Ashley Hall, in other words, lived a fairly typical Porter-Gaud-like life.  However, she and her husband Tom are now in the process of producing records — cds that is — for local gospel groups.  How did this come about?  Through serendipity and the willingness to try new things.

About four years ago, Jo and Tom went to a gospel concert at Spoleto and were knocked out by this local quartet called the Brotherhood.  They decided they wanted to see them again.  The only thing was that back then the Brotherhood only performed in all black churches.

That didn’t stop Jo.

I asked Jo what it was like being a middle aged white woman going as a complete stranger to an all black church.  She said she was nervous and that some of her white friends told her not to go, that blacks wouldn’t want her at their church, that it was intrusive.  But she said to me, “You know, Wes, I’m 50 years old and that type of thing I don’t have time for.”  So she and Tom went, were welcomed warmly, loved it.  Over time, they became very good friends with the Brotherhood and their wives.  Jo says that every time she hears them, they restore her faith in the world.  She firmly believes that getting to know the Brotherhood is one of the very best things that has happened to her.  And it’s been great for them, too.  With Jo and Tom’s help, they’ve gained a wider audience and have toured Europe.  Their European audiences loved them; they loved their European audiences.

The courage to take a chance and reach out has certainly enriched Jo’s life.  The Brotherhood’s lives.  And some Europeans’ lives as well.

But the thing is — integration isn’t only about mixing colors — it literally means “to make whole by bringing all parts together.”  As long as we cut others off, as longs as we limit our peers by only seeing them as computer nerds, jocks, rednecks, math people, preppies, 7th graders — we too are cut off.  We’re a piece of something.  The stranger you see everyday at lunch sitting by himself may have an important gift to share — might possess a missing piece of your puzzle.

For example, in the film after Treves discovers that Merrick can speak, Treves leaves the hospital room and encounters Merrick’s sadistic manager, a man who exploited Merrick by exhibiting him in freak shows and who severely beat him. The manager threatens Treves by saying he will go to the authorities unless Treves does not release Merrick.  The head of the hospital overhears the conversation and orders the manager out, saying he’s sure the authorities would be glad to hear of how he treated Merrick.  The hospital head tells Treves he would like to meet the patient the next afternoon.  Treves knows there is no chance keeping Merrick in the hospital if Merrick does not show himself to be mentally competent.

 

There’s no telling what wonders may exist in that person we have shut out.  Merrick had already learned the “23rd Psalm” from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  Where, no doubt, he also ran across these words, the wisest words I know of to be found anywhere:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Thank you for your attention.  Any announcements . . .

 


[1] i.e., fate

South Carolina’s Musical Heritage

To say South Carolina is a colorful state is like saying Orson Welles had a weight problem, Yul Brenner was follicularly challenged (better add a reference someone under 60 might recognize) or Justin Bieber isn’t what you would call winsome.

Damn right we’re colorful – got a Asian-Indian-American governor against immigration, a black senator backing legislation that makes it more difficult for blacks to vote, a white not-so-closeted gay senator against marriage equality. Got a state university that houses its “Honor College” in a building named for former governor/senator who went by the moniker “Pitchfork Ben” and was an outspoken advocate of white supremacy and lynch laws.

hunleyfuneral11We put on elaborate funerals for found Confederate bones, wear seersucker suits, interbreed, whoop it up all the time (cf. Southern Charm). In fact, I hear James L Petigru’s quote that South Carolina’s “too small to be a republic and too large to be an insane asylum” so often it’s almost become a cliché.

Given our eccentricities, it follows South Carolina boasts a bumper crop of potent popular music, and it does — to a certain extent.

* * *

Each year the magazine The Oxford American puts out a Southern Music edition that comes with a cd featuring an eclectic selection of songs from the South. The last few years, the editors have featured the songs of one state; e.g., Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee have all had cds devoted to their home grown music. Because of the rich treasure trove these states possess, the editors have refrained from choosing the states’ most famous or most accomplished musicians but have opted instead for a [redundancy alert] smorgasbord of arcane eclecticism. For example, you won’t find Iris DeMent or Robert Lockwood, Jr. on the Arkansas cd; however, Suga City makes the cut.

Iris DeMent

Iris DeMent

Whenever the Oxford editors get around to culling some tunes for the South Carolina cd, they’re not going to have a profound number of musicians to choose from, but damn, they’re going to have some true masters who hail from the Palmetto State. The problem, I suspect, will be which James Brown or Dizzy Gillespie tune to showcase.

What follows is my South Carolina cd with the caveat that I ain’t no expert and will no doubt omit some obvious choices. Also, I’m not listing the musicians/songs in the order that would appear on the cd but in the order they occur to me.

* * *

One gripe I have with the Oxford cds is that they can sound a bit too archive-y, if you know what I mean. I like listening to cds in the car on the way to work, not necessarily listening to them as an exercise in musical scholarship. Therefore, I’d match the following SC musicians with these songs.

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs – “Stay” [Lancaster, SC]

The Swingin’ Medallions – “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love” [Greenwood]

The Marshall Tucker Band – “Can’t You See” [Spartanburg]

Eartha-Kitt-Bad-But-Beautiful-375528Because Eartha Kitt’s “C’est Bon” has already appeared on an earlier Oxford compilation, I’d go with maybe “I Want to be Evil” or “Je cherce un homme.” {North]

Of course, the geniuses Dizzy Gillespie [Cheraw] and James Brown [Barnwell] have left profound bodies of work. I’m too lazy to even try to come up with representative songs. It’s no fun, too fraught with danger.

 * * *

Okay we have 6 songs so we need at least 14 more. SC beach music needs more representation than the Medallions, so Bill Pinckney’s Drifters [Daizell, SC] is an obvious choice. Let’s go with “There Goes My Baby.”

Chubby Checker - Twisting USA Album CoverChubby Checker [Spring Gulley] checks in [forgive me] with “Let’s Twist Again” because it’s such pure rock-n-roll, but “Limbo Rock” would be a close second.

As far as country/Americana goes we got Bill Anderson [Columbia] “Po Folks” and the country swing of Uncle Walt’s Band [Spartanburg] featuring the Champ Hood, David Ball, and the late Walter Hyatt. “Gimme Some Skin” would be my choice.

I love gospel, and we have an impressive number of groups to choose from, but in deference to my pal Jo Humphreys, I’m going with the Brotherhood Gospel Singers [Mt. Pleasant] “Mary, Don’t Weep.”

Now, it’s blues time. The Reverend Gary Davis’s {Laurens County] “You Got to Move” or “Prodigal Son” will be familiar to Rolling Stone aficionados. Pinkey “Pink” Anderson {Laurens] certainly deserves the nod above Drink Small [Bishopville].

Though I’m not a big fan, it would be churlish not to include Hootie and the Blowfish [Charleston]. You choose.

Now for some lesser known South Carolina artists. Julius Cobb’s {Greenville] soul ballad “Great Big Change in Me” with its horns and killer vocal (featuring talking) is an obscure gem (and my former roommate Warren Moise once played keyboards with one of his bands). You can listen to “Great Change in Me” HERE.

Even though they’re from North Carolina, we could sneak Jump Little Children into the mix, but why do that when you could include The Fire Apes’ [Charleston] “Let Me Know” or “Lori.”

killerwhales_largeEver heard of the Killer Whales [Charleston]? Well, I have, and their cover of the Melodians’ “Johnny Too Bad” adds a much needed Caribbean lilt into the mix.

How bout some jazz fusion funk via Alphonse Mouzon [Charleston? “Funky Snakefoot” will do in a pinch.

Okay, I’m down to two Do I want to throw a bone to the younger set with a selection from Iron & Wine or add a couple of unrepresented country crooners like Josh Turner?

Naw, I’m going with the Blue Dogs’ “Walter” [Charleston] and Danielle Howle’s [Columbia ] “Oh Swear.”

Jim Crow

Jim Crow

By the way, if you’re reading this before 15 November 2014 and are in the Charleston area, come out and see two of my favorite acts at the Folly Beach Front Porch Festival, i.e. Jim Crow going solo and Po Dunk led by brother/frontman John Fleming Moore. It starts at 2 at various venues in walking distance of Center Street.

 

 

James Dickey and Me

james-l-dickeyIntro

Like hundreds of other po-dunk wannabe poets, I took James Dickey’s verse seminar course when he was poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. That semester — the Fall of ’76 – ended up being a significant one for Dickey, who in the course of its 15 weeks became a widower and a bridegroom.

I had first heard of Big Jim Dickey from my high school English teacher Mrs. Clarice Foster, who described him as “a brilliant young poet who had written a fairly good novel.” The novel, of course, was Deliverance, which came out in ’70, my senior year, two years before the release of the movie. Deliverance the movie made Dickey famous, a drinking buddy with Burt Reynolds, but perhaps exacerbated his propensity of making a colossal ass of himself.

Big Jim Dickey (by Robert Fowler)

Who started calling

Big Jim Dickey

Big Jim Dickey?

Big Jim Dickey,

That’s who.

Bobby’s poem summarized what the slumming literary crowd I hung around thought about Dickey. The cat could write dazzling poems, but his my-genius-gives-me-the-license-to-breach-the-customs-of-polite-society got old fast. He could make you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, like your own father could in your late teens when you started to figure out a lot of what he pontificated was bullshit. I lacked compassion back then, I thought I knew more than I did, and I now rue my lack of respect.

James Dickey was a near great, if not great poet, and I squandered a chance to learn more from him.

From “Cherrylog Road”

We left by separate doors

Into the changed, other bodies

Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road

And I to my motorcycle

Parked like the soul of the junkyard

Restored, a bicycle fleshed

With power, and tore off

Up Highway 106, continually

Drunk on the wind in my mouth,

Wringing the handlebar for speed,

Wild to be wreckage forever.

James Dickey

dickey with hatFall Semester 1976

Smiling, stooped, gregarious, he sat at the head of the seminar table wearing two or three watches on both wrists. Dickey was often – I wouldn’t call it drunk – but more like inebriated – eloquent, narcissistic, rarely bothering to comment on the fixed-form ditties he had us crank out each week.

More typically, he’d talk about himself, famous poets he’d known, the goings-on of the set of Deliverance.   He called the good-looking females in the class “Sugar Face.” One week on Tuesday and Thursday, without providing us the text to see, he read aloud the same essay by Sir Herbert Read.   No one mentioned to him the error on that Thursday when he began reading the piece for the second time – not I-and-I, not the hanger-on poets who attended the class every semester without registering, not his grad assistant.

In short, he was a terrible teacher that semester, that is, until some veins in his wife’s esophagus ruptured, which he described in class with a graphic eloquence that was at once paradoxically impassioned and detached. It was like watching a poem coming to be in 3-D – he at first thinking a burglar had attacked her when he encountered her limp body bleeding profusely on the floor of their house. He held her in his arms there on the floor as she lost half her body’s blood.

Warning: the Following Contains Off-Putting Name Dropping

Several years ago our friend Jo Humphreys, author of Dreams of Sleep and Rich in Love, invited Judy and me to a party in honor of her mentor Reynolds Price. After Jo introduced us, Mr. Price and I got on the subject of James Dickey who had recently died. Price told me he had great affection for “Jim” but that Jim was “insane” in a way that was hard to characterize and that it was impossible to be a woman and to be his friend.   Mr. Price also said that one time at a party, Dickey had picked him up off the ground and said something to the effect of that though he — Dickey — didn’t sleep with men, if he ever were to, he’d want to sleep with him — Price.

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

Fall Semester, continued

Mrs. Maxine Dickey survived that night and hung on for a month or so before she died. While she was in the hospital, Elizabeth Bishop came to campus for a reading. Dickey — or his graduate assistant — arranged for us during our class time to meet Bishop and hear her read a poem or two.   The meeting hadn’t been announced, so we followed Dickey, leading the way down the street from our classroom to a Victorian house a block away.

So we met Elizabeth Bishop, I ignorant of what an honor it should be. She looked like an Episcopalian grandmother with her neatly coiffed white hair and  matching plaid blazer and skirt. Her demeanor utterly contrasted with Dickey’s, like George Will versus Screaming Jay Hawkins.

What I didn’t know was that Elizabeth Bishop and her friend Robert Lowell held Dickey in contempt. Later that night after the official reading, Dickey asked Bishop to sign some books and pose for a photograph with him and refused, saying, “Sir, I do not pose for pictures.”

One of the great things about having Dickey on campus was the writers he could summon. During my time in Columbia, in addition to Elizabeth Bishop, I got to hear Robert Penn Warren, Archibald MacLeish, and Robert Lowell.

For the Last Wolverine

They will soon be down

To one, but he still will be

For a little while    still will be stopping

The flakes in the air with a look,

Surrounding himself with the silence

Of whitening snarls. Let him eat

The last red meal of the condemned

To extinction, tearing the guts

From an elk. Yet that is not enough

For me. I would have him eat

The heart, and, from it, have an idea

Stream into his gnawing head

That he no longer has a thing

To lose, and so can walk

Out into the open, in the full

Pale of the sub-Arctic sun

Where a single spruce tree is dying

Higher and higher. Let him climb it

With all his meanness and strength.

Lord, we have come to the end

Of this kind of vision of heaven,

As the sky breaks open

Its fans around him and shimmers

And into its northern gates he rises

Snarling   complete    in the joy of a weasel

With an elk’s horned heart in his stomach

Looking straight into the eternal

Blue, where he hauls his kind. I would have it all

My way: at the top of that tree I place

The New World’s last eagle

Hunched in mangy feathers    giving

Up on the theory of flight.

Dear God of the wildness of poetry, let them mate

To the death in the rotten branches,

Let the tree sway and burst into flame

And mingle them, crackling with feathers,

In crownfire. Let something come

Of it    something gigantic     legendary

Rise beyond reason over hills

Of ice   SCREAMING    that it cannot die,

That it has come back, this time

On wings, and will spare no earthly thing:

That it will hover, made purely of northern

Lights, at dusk    and fall

On men building roads: will perch

On the moose’s horn like a falcon

Riding into battle    into holy war against

Screaming railroad crews: will pull

Whole traplines like fibers from the snow

In the long-jawed night of fur trappers.

But, small, filthy, unwinged,

You will soon be crouching

Alone, with maybe some dim racial notion

Of being the last, but none of how much

Your unnoticed going will mean:

How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton’s internal fire    the elk’s

Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the “blind swallowing

Thing,” with himself, to eat

The world, and not to be driven off it

Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are

And make of you what I will,

Skunk-bear, carcajou, bloodthirsty

Non-survivor.

                                        Lord, let me die       but not die


Out.

James Dickey

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

the author in 1976 photo by Judy Birdsong

Fall Semester completed

In the other class Dickey was teaching that semester, Dickey had met his soon-to-be new wife.   He married her, one of his students, Deborah Dodsen, two months after Maxine’s death.

I myself had met and fallen in love with my future wife Judy Birdsong that semester.

Later Contact

When I started teaching high school in the mid-Eighties, I called Dickey to ask him if it would be all right if I had a student writing a paper on Deliverance phone and interview him to so he could use the author as a source.

Mr. Dickey — as I addressed him over the phone — couldn’t have been nicer. He asked what year he had taught me, who my friends were, claimed to remember me, and welcomed the student’s call.

The last time I saw Dickey was in ’97. He had selected a poem of mine to be included in anthology of his students’ work published by USC Press. There was a reception for the poets where we could buy books and have him sign them.

He was a changed man, thinner, the combover replaced by a buzz cut;  he was calmer, almost courtly. We chatted as he signed three books I had bought for my parents, my in-laws, and a friend.

I really regret that I didn’t have him sign one for me, but the line was long, and I didn’t want to be that person.

Local Souls

Thirty years ago when I gave fiction a half-assed serious stab, I managed to get selected by Blanche McCrary Boyd to participate in a writing workshop sponsored by the SC Arts Commission. Of the dozen or so participants, more than a few would go on to publish novels or short story collections – Josephine Humphreys, Lee McAden Robinson, William Baldwin, Starkey Flythe, Jr., Harlan Greene, and Stephen Hoffius. When we met each week, Boyd read aloud one of our stories or excerpts (she didn’t provide us copies), and, afterwards, she led us in offering critiques. Harlan Greene and Josephine Humphreys, if I remember correctly, had had novels accepted that had not quite come out yet. When Boyd read aloud from the galleys of Humphreys’s Dreams of Sleep, I suddenly caught a malodorous whiff of my own amateur rankness. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Before they wake, sunlight is on the house, moving on the high east wall and window through old glass as wavy as broken water, onto the hard bright floor of waxed pine. When Alice opens her eyes, she sees its cool path stamped by the window of mullions, squares stretching to rhomboids of clear fall sun. Will sleeps behind her, his breath wisping her back. She loves the quiet of light and its mutable geometry, as those wizards did who chinked and slit their stones to let in messages from sun gods. The message to Alice is, Don’t move. Not till that first stamp of light touches the wide crack in the floorboards. 

Of course, we all heaped – BM Boyd especially – heavy praise on that first chapter; however, perhaps feeling obligated to find at least one thing negative to say, Blanche conjectured that the prose might be “too gorgeous.” I guess she meant that the sonorousness of the prose might distract the reader from the story – the way that occasionally an overwritten passage by Pat Conroy can bump your attention from the action of the narrative to its making. However, Humphrey’s prose is the opposite of distracting. The auditory patterns of her sentences provide a sort of soundtrack that augments their sharp cinematic images – for example, the perfect iambs of who chinked and slit their stones echo the methodical tap tap tap of hammer on chisel. 

Brett Lott makes a similar criticism of Alan Gurganus’s new book Local Souls, three novellas set in the fictional North Carolina town of Falls, one of the featured locales of Gurganus’s wonderful first novel The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All. Brett Lott contends that “too often [Gurganus’s] sentences become cryptically twisted, sacrificing sense for sound” as “he strain[s] to make sure we know he hasn’t lost his Southern touch.” Lott goes on to complain, “The effect is that while the language juggles for us center stage, the drama here — and there’s plenty of it — becomes subservient, eclipsed by the earnest regionalism of it all.”

Certainly, Lott isn’t talking about the prose of the first novella, “Fear Not,” a millennial Southern Gothic page turner that features decapitation, pedophilia, and incest in the Age of “Goggling” and “JPEGs.” Framed by a prologue “Overture” and an epilogue “Curtains Down,” the narrative is the “novellaization” of a strange and perverse local tragedy. Attending a high school production of Sweeney Todd featuring his goddaughter, a writer, “becalmed and itchy between novels,” finds himself seated between his “dearest friend and two hot strangers.”

After the play, his friend tells him about the couple, who might well have been the bastard great great grandchildren of Miss Emily Grierson and Homer Barron. The novelist decides to take on dramatizing the story, “swear[ing] to God at least 81% of it is true.”

Here, is the fifth paragraph of his rendering of the couple’s history:

And visible from this pastel beach, a weekend captain of one twenty-two-foot Chris-Craft loses sight of the water skier he’s pulling two hundred yards out into the lake. (One red nylon towline just got tangled on a log twelve feet underwater). The towed guy leaves his yellow skis to float, plunges under waves to free his line. The fourteen-year-old daughter of the man about to die, she sunbathes face-up. In a row of girlfriends, she rests on heated sand detergent white.

In the last sentence, we do have some unusual syntax “heated sand detergent white”; however, this Latinate construction strikes me more as Miltonic than Southern (we call “guys” “fellows”), and I would argue that the phrase’s slight tinge of the archaic is well-suited to the content of a tale that smacks of legend; “Fear Not” is ultimately a nightmarish fairy tale with a perversely happy ending. The all too prevalent pedestrian prose of MFA factories wouldn’t do it justice. 

In the second novella, “Saints Have Mothers,” Gurganus shifts to the first person to tell the story of a doting but resentful mother, Jean, and her self-righteous know-it-all superstar of a daughter, Caitlin. Our narrator, once promising poet, abandoned her literary ambitions for marriage and childbearing, and with her to-be-ex husband produced a child prodigy, Caitlin, who, to echo Ben Jonson, embodies Jean’s “best piece of poetry.”

17 year-old Caitlin – brilliant, entitled, pathologically idealistic – is half St. Francis, half Katie Couric, at once selfless and resume-building. The timbre of Jean’s narration conjures a sense of tragic inevitability as a poem Caitlin has written about homelessness wins her a summer internship in Africa. We suffer foreshadowing after foreshadowing suggesting that doom awaits. Think Lear with his diminishing entourage, Lincoln taking his seat in the theatre.

Here, you see, I am setting up the part where the phone actually does ring at three a.m. By then Caitlin had been in Africa just under two months, forty nine days. – This particular night, the twins are sound asleep. I’m feeling feverish even as I dream how my daughter is just out spreading good cheers across downtown falls. I’m dreaming that Cait is due back any minute, that all will be well. The phone starts so loud.

Once again, I find nothing particularly “cryptically twisted” or particularly Southern about the prose of “Saints Have Mothers.” In fact, throughout all three of the novellas, there’s a downright paucity of y’alls. Our narrator Jean is a quirky woman with occasional quirky turns of phrase, but, after all, she’s had a poem published in the Atlantic. Here she is describing daughter Caitlin delivering a patronizing hug

UH-OH. ONE NUBILE (sic) female rests across me. She is trying to mask me. She cannot know how bones and boyish her hips feel sunk into my over-ample sponge-blob ones. She lifts the coarse veil to frame my face. It slips. Cait is planning a major hug, or worse, a kiss, a spirit makeover I don’t need. Success-oriented as any young Ivy exec, she will not be stopped. Foil cloth covers my one eye then both. The cloth now tastes, a toxic net.

No complaints about that prose here.

When Lott criticizes the Gurganus’s “Southern touch,” he’s probably thinking principally of “Decoy,” a haunting, brilliantly compressed bi-generational minor masterpiece. The narrator Bill Mabry, the grandson of sharecroppers, has been transplanted as a boy from country red clay to the topsoil of Falls, seemingly genteel (but remember “Fear Not” above).   

Actually, the narrative spans close to four generations from Bill’s father Red (imagined as a boy by his son in “denim coveralls, red hair looking like his one cash crop, probably open-mouthed with pleasure”) to his two own children “son: (Haverford, Sanford ) and daughter (Middlebury, Baylor)” and his five-year-old grandson who complains that kindergarten is “Boring [. . .] Always the same. Milk, cookies, cookies, milk.”

Here is the time-honored American dream of ascent; however, for narrator Bill, the transition from “a rabbit-box of country shack” to his antique-filled river home has had its challenges. Like many Southerners, our narrator has an acute ear for the sounds of words (and the beauty of vowels), but, do lawd, he calls his mama Mom! Note in the paragraph that follows that he’s filtering his prose through the consciousness of his daddy, blending his college-educated diction with his father’s 8th grade dropout rural North Carolina vernacular.

This son of sharecropping had never glimpsed lawns acres wide. Of no silage value. Hell, you couldn’t even bail stuff this short to feed your poppa’s cattle. Grass here meant to be a kind of moat. It would keep your white house hid-back awninged in blue eye shadow.

I ain’t kidding, I have friends who talk like this – Jake Williams and Furman Langley come to mind. They sing self-made-up songs like “The Hurry Curry Casserole Blues” or “I Was Standing by the River When I Seen My Savior There.” If you’re telling a story, alliteration helps; if you draw out a vowel for effect, you’re underscoring. I’m an auditory reader, though. I hear words when I read silently. I love it when they make music that’s not overdone.

For me, Gurganus’s prose is nearly pitch perfect. I rarely reread contemporary novels, but I’m going to reread this one so I can pick up cross references among the three novellas to fully appreciate its Winesberg, Ohio, effect.