Special to the Clarion-Ledger
Barry Gifford explains in the beginning of his new novel that in ancient cultures, it was believed that there were five directions: North, South, East, West and Up-Down, which represented the navel or center. It’s an inward direction that his protagonist, Pace Ripley, intended to go in order to explain his life, which at this point had extended six decades.
It’s a good thing Gifford provides this road map because without it, one might be lost as to what to make of the rapid twists and turns of Pace’s life — or, rather, this series of bizarre incidents that form an amoral (from the standpoint of organized religion) morality tale.
The lessons can be as obvious as the necessity to face one’s own fears and let go of old demons to the inexplicable which also serves up the point that life often just is inexplicable. Or, as Pace is told when awakened from a dream by a voice in the darkness: “God is a disappointment to everyone.”
Pace is the son of Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune whose tales titillated readers for decades. He was a minor character, noted for the predicaments life seemed to offer him. He wandered out of the S&L tales as a young man by going to Katmandu and then marrying a New Yorker.
Gifford’s Sailor and Lula became popular in the 1990s. Readers might remember the film adaptation of the first S&L book Wild at Heart (1990) starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern.
In that one, Sailor gets out of prison for time spent protecting Lula that resulted in a manslaughter conviction, while Lula’s mother tries to keep them apart (a thread throughout the books). They meet any number of odd characters and situations that involve quick deaths when the plot gets sticky.
By any other author, such deus ex machina might seem contrived but Gifford pulls it off, mainly because his characters are often so unbelievably believable that when the unbelievable happens, it just becomes as believable as the rest.
While Gifford’s plots are rather languid and often marked by the aforementioned quick deaths, the reader doesn’t suffer, as the observations and interplay between characters are quite juicy (sometimes R-rated).
That continues in Up-Down, which is subtitled “The almost lost, last Sailor and Lula story, in which their son, Pace Roscoe Ripley, finds his way.”
Sailor and Lula fans will love this book and hope more “lost” tales will be found!
Biographies of Gifford state that his father was in in organized crime, and he spent his childhood largely in Chicago and New Orleans living in hotels. If so, that explains much of the richness of his writing, offbeat characters and random violence.
For new fans, the entire series is compiled in Sailor and Lula: The Complete Novels (Seven Stories Press, 2010, 618 pages, $19.95).
Gifford obviously knows a great deal about Mississippi, using place names and common characters throughout his S&L books. The stories may be the closest Mississippi has to the equally wacky Serge Storms sagas by Tim Dorsey, who peoples his characters in Florida.
The Up-Down can be seen as a coda to the S&L books, or even a koan of sorts, to underscore the fact that life is not logical or comprehensible and it can only be understood intuitively, experimentally. That, also, may be considered wisdom.
Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating, and the forthcoming Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, Spring 2015.
Barry Gifford will be at Lemuria January 28th at 5 PM to read and sign from his book, The Up-Down.