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Leaving Itta Bena


There's getting to be a serious home shortage in this country. I'm not talking about houses, I'm talking about where you're from. The megamall culture is gobbling up towns and countryside, spitting out chain stores, making every place like every place else. Southern culture has always been based on the idea of home, the notion that you are from somewhere and that place matters to you, makes you what you are. Although we're transforming into a region of suburban boredom fast enough, there's enough home left down here to raise the envy of a displaced consumer nation.

Suddenly, everybody just loves all things Southern. Native Californians wake up and realize they've always dreamed of a home in Appalachia. Country music, or at least easy-listening pop radio that drawls, becomes the most popular music ever among people who used to listen to Led Zeppelin or Barry Manilow. NASCAR racing has gone from an obscure redneck obsession to a big-time national sport.

Southern literature is riding the same nostalgia wave. Seems like the way to get a novel published these days is to write about four generations of an extended family in Alabama, not forgetting to include a character named Mawmaw, a racist preacher and an unspeakable stepfather. Mention magnolias. Stir.

That's why Lewis Nordan makes me so happy. Nordan writes about a South I recognize. A region of wild canaries, mad elephants, circus freaks, eunuchs, llama farms and fishing for chickens. Hallelujah, somebody grew up below the Mason-Dixon line and noticed how truly weird it is down here.

Nordan's new memoir, Boy With Loaded Gun, is coming out from Algonquin this month, accompanied by more than the usual gush. The Algonquin Web site (www.algonquin.com) features a Lewis Nordan fan club and declares the first week in February to be Lewis Nordan Appreciation Week. There's a contest for booksellers, too: The most creative promotion wins a weekend in Itta Bena, Miss., with "Buddy" Nordan himself.

If you want to join the fan club, you're supposed to pledge to lend a Lewis Nordan book to a friend. I'm not loaning out my copies, though. If you haven't read him, you should go out and buy your own. In fact, do it now. Go out and get The Sharpshooter Blues or Lighting Song. Call in sick to work, spend the whole day on the couch reading this guy. It'll do you a world of good.

Itta Bena, where Nordan grew up, doesn't sound like much of a tourist destination. It appears in his fiction disguised as Arrow Catcher, Miss., a place where, as Hydro the big-headed boy says, "I'm hopeless. We all are." The culture of this swampy, isolated, backward place is pieced together from all kinds of old junk. It's a place where nobody has much going for them, where people pass the time together and put up with each other because they have to.

Half of Boy With Loaded Gun is about growing up in Itta Bena and how bad Nordan wanted to escape its small-town ignorance and boredom. The height of glamour for a young boy in Itta Bena involved being allowed to sit with his father as he drank, standing by the counter at the local store, "among the meager groceries that Mr. Shiloh [the proprietor] also had for sale, cans of Vienna sausages, Dinty Moore stew, crackers and sardines. Mr. Shiloh had a meat case that housed only a long string of fierce-colored hot dogs that never changed position in the case."

Nordan seems to see the world with a happy combination of shocking honesty and dreamy affection. He makes those dubious hot dogs into precious objects, comic, pathetic, real things. He gives the same clear-eyed, amused treatment to his fictional characters, and to himself in his memoir, as well. He portrays himself as a strange, awkward child, an annoying, even demented teenager, and a seriously dysfunctional adult. Somehow, the result is incredibly appealing.

There's a goofball fantasy element to Nordan's vision of the world. He throws in details you couldn't possibly believe, except that you do. For no apparent reason, a dog drags a saddlebag full of harmonicas across the street. There's a guy who appears in all of Nordan's novels carrying a chair and a whip with him everywhere he goes. In Boy With Loaded Gun, Nordan gleefully records all his childhood delusions. There's a whole chapter devoted to bizarre things he ordered through the mail. He remembers catalog purchases as a kind of initiation into adulthood, his first attempts to contact the world outside Itta Bena. He was also religiously devoted to television when it finally arrived in his hometown. As he remembers it:

Pictures all over me, even when the TV set was not on, in my ears, in my eyes, on the food. At meals, I was eating pictures. I swallowed them in the sweet tea. I pissed and shat pictures. I washed electrical pictures from my flesh with my Saturday night bath. Herb Philbrick, Milton Berle swirled away down the drain. ... The world changed.

The story of Nordan's life seems to be made up of one attempt after another to realize his TV and mail-order fantasies, to somehow contact and maybe even join a more sophisticated world. He never quite makes it. No matter where he goes, he remains a hick from Mississippi, and an odd one at that. Painful as it must have been for him, it's made him an amazing chronicler of a very specific place, a disheveled, trashy, broken home--that is, a real home.

All Nordan's fiction takes place in and around Arrow Catcher. The same characters show up again and again, sometimes as heroes, sometimes just passing by on the street. These rednecks, no-goods and oddballs waste time, drink, fish and generally get on each other's nerves. Nordan makes fun of them, but never patronizes them. Just about every character is some kind of freak, failure, or, in Nordan's phrase, "a little bit of a mess." But he gives them souls, he has them love and hate and think about what it all means. In The Sharpshooter Blues they ponder "the meaning of good and evil and how to break into show business." There is a beautiful passage in that same novel about how good it feels to shoot a gun indoors now and then, into an old refrigerator, for instance. In anyone else's hands, this would be satire. In Nordan's, it is funny, but utterly sincere.

There's nothing syrupy in Nordan's fictional down-home. The poor whites of Arrow Catcher live in a ghetto known as Balance Due; the black neighborhood is known as the Belgian Congo. His most well-known novel, Wolf Whistle, is based on the death of Emmet Till, a black teenager who was brutally murdered by Mississippi racists when Nordan was in high school. There is violence and death and heart-wrenching pain in all of his books. Nordan is haunted by the death of children and by loneliness and the sense of utter, hopeless failure. If you read Boy With Loaded Gun, you'll see why.

A longtime alcoholic, Nordan views his worst episodes with matter-of-fact remorse. He doesn't let himself off the hook for anything. He's been through his share of therapy and recovery, and mercifully, it's left his language unscathed by jargon and psychobabble. He bluntly records the points of interest along his path of disintegration. Most of his fiction was written following some very tragic turning points in his life, and it resonates with compassion and understanding of loss. His characters puzzle over the crazy mess they've made of their lives, looking for mystical signs among the piles of junk. In Boy With Loaded Gun, Nordan does the same, looking back over his own life.

While still a teenager, he ran off to New York City to become a bohemian. His disastrous adventures in a flea-bag hotel constitute maybe the funniest five pages I've ever read. In the middle of them, though, he freeze-frames the young Buddy and admits that he'd rather be writing a novel than have to face what he knows comes next in his real life:

... in life, whatever happens, really and truly, is in fiction always transformed, the possibility of grace for its characters is never lost. And I live my life today, as I did then, in the hope of finding real transcendence, after the manner of fictional characters, although I understand the danger of such hope.

Buddy Nordan never did get to be a bohemian, of course. Much of his life is a litany of things he thought he would do, but couldn't. He doesn't feel sorry for himself, but sometimes the story of his life sounds as hopeless as any of those freaks drinking at the corner store. But he did get to be a writer. And he got out of Mississippi. He lives and teaches in Pittsburgh now, but he's still from Itta Bena, fortunately for the inhabitants of Arrow Catcher, and for us. EndBlock

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