Category: Southern Fiction (Page 1 of 19)

‘King Zeno’ is a mesmerizing novel of historic NOLA crime

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 28)

King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich is a crime novel that transcends the genre to suck the reader into a world long gone.

king zenoIt’s a “crime” novel because it swirls around the notorious, real life crimes of an ax murder spree and wave of street robberies that struck 1918 New Orleans.

But it rises above the set piece of police procedurals by enlivening the characters beyond a simple whodunit. Rather, it is an absorbing novel spiced with rich, deep characters in a sweeping foray where the crimes serve as a framework.

The main characters include:

  • Beatrice Vizzini, the widow of a “Black Hand” (read: mafia) crime figure, who masterminds the “protection” racket of small Italian grocers, while trying to turn legitimate;
  •  Giorgio, her flawed son, a menacing figure she hopes will take over the family business;
  •  Isadore “King” Zero, a talented trumpeter, struggling to survive on the mean streets, including resorting to robbery, to provide for his pregnant wife and disapproving mother-in-law, while pioneering the then-new musical form of jazz;
  • Police Det. Bill Bastrop, a World War I veteran, who suffers from what today would be called PTSD, tasked with solving a wave of street robberies and a string of ax murders terrorizing the city.

Rising above this miasma of passions, fears and chicanery, the deadly 1918 flu pandemic (that infected 500 million people worldwide, killing up to 40 million) stalks the Crescent City, stirring a rising tide of the sick and the dead.

An allure of Zeno is its ability to act as a time machine, carrying people who love the flavor and lore of NOLA to another time, fleshing out areas of the city such as Storyville, the Garden District, the Irish Channel.

Taking place as the Industrial Channel is being dug, linking Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River, Zeno is filled with descriptions of a city that still lives under the surface of modernity. The characters are believable, well-crafted, and even with its heft of nearly 400 pages, the book carries the reader briskly forward.

Rich is masterful in mapping the characters’ motivations, often not fully understood by the characters themselves, deftly teasing out a believable plot through their interactions.

His language is, at times, made obscure by the vernacular of the period, but at times crystalline. For example, in explaining Isadore’s attraction to music, he writes that he “had always understood music as a conversation with the Dark Unknown—the dimension of the world that was hidden to the world …. When you played, the conversation went both ways.”

Zeno is a mesmerizing walk through time into a New Orleans that still subtly exists, with prostitution, gambling, street crime, wretched social inequality, and stark racism, overlaid by exquisite music, mindless excess, and licentious celebration. It all adds up to a tantalizing read with astute insights into the human condition.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Author Q & A with Nathaniel Rich

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 14)

New York native Nathaniel Rich has made his home in New Orleans for nearly a decade, drawn, he said, by the city’s strong sense of its own identity, and its proud “indifference” to what is going on elsewhere–not to mention, as he puts it, “all the usual things” New Orleans is known for–unrivaled food, music, culture, and landscape.

But it was the history of the city that sparked Rich’s inspiration for his newest novel, King Zeno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) an engaging tale that incorporates true events from early 20th-century New Orleans and weaves together the stories of the lives of three unlikely characters in a surprise ending that is both chilling and redemptive.

A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, Rich’s essays have appeared in The New York Review of BooksThe AtlanticRolling Stone, and The Daily Beast, among others. He is also the author of two previous novels, Odds Against Tomorrow and The Mayor’s Tongue.

You come from a literary family–your brother Simon Rich is a humorist, novelist, short story author, and screenwriter; your dad Frank Rich has enjoyed a career as a columnist, essayist, and TV producer; your mom Gail Winston is an executive editor for a major publisher and, and your step-mother is a magazine writer. What’s it like to be in a family with so much writing talent, and what have you learned from each other?

Nathaniel Rich

Nathaniel Rich

Many writers at some point have to overcome their parents’ disapproval, if not outraged incomprehension, at their choice of profession. I was fortunate to have to face down only thinly veiled discouragement and queasily suppressed anxiety.

My brother is a brilliant writer of fiction and I learn tremendously from his example, his work, and his counsel.

Coming after your first two novels, The Mayor’s Tongue (an imaginative sand telling story of shared miscommunications in everyday relationships) and Odds Against Tomorrow (a catastrophic look at the effects of a major hurricane that hits Manhattan)–it seems that King Zeno is in many ways a departure from their style in that it is a historical novel based in part on real-life events (including the still unsolved “Axeman murders”) in New Orleans as World War I was drawing to a close in 1918. Did you feel like you were in some ways “switching gears” with King Zeno?

In a number of superficial ways King Zeno is unlike the earlier two–just as the first two novels are unlike each other. They are set in very different periods with characters who wouldn’t know what to make of each other if they showed up in the same room together (something like this happens at the end of The Mayor’s Tongue). But all of the novels came about the same way, from an initial suggestion–in this case, a historical article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune–that attracted other ideas and stories and subconscious embellishments until it had achieved the weight and requisite spookiness of a novel.

The are commonalities that go deeper than questions of plot and setting. Each of the novels contends with a desire to examine a problem without an easy resolution: the limits of language (The Mayor’s Tongue); the fear of the future (Odds Against Tomorrow); the desire for immortality (King Zeno). Each novel also balances on a knife’s edge between a plausible, lifelike reality and a fantasy realm, so in that way they all seem to me to occupy the same world. And the sensibility, or the voice, is the same–an inevitability, since they were written by the same person.

With in-depth stories of each of the three main characters that converge at the end, set in New Orleans during a severe Spanish Flu epidemic, the Axeman murders, the growing popularity of jazz, and the construction of the industrial canal connecting the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain, there is a lot going on in King Zeno. With so much historical detail to cover, how did you conduct the research for this book, and how long did it take?

king zenoThe initial idea grew out of my fascination with two historical events: the series of unsolved ax murders that reached its culmination with a bizarre letter to the Times-Picayune; and the excavation of the Industrial Canal, a hubristic manhandling of the local terrain that has haunted New Orleans ever since.

I visited the New Orleans Historical Collection and the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane, devouring newspapers and other publications from the period. The newspaper crime journalism, written in a breathless, panicky, Gothic style, gave me an element of the novel’s tone.

Louis Armstrong would have been about 18 during the action of the novel, about the same age as Isadore Zeno. His memoir about growing up in New Orleans, Satchmo, has novelistic detail about life in the part of the city then known as Battleground, explaining, for instance, the differences between a third-rate and second-rate honky-tonk; which railroad tracks grew the best medicinal herbs; where to buy fish heads cheap. Jelly Roll Morton’s conversations about the period with Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll, taught me how to “shoot the agate” and how to pass as a “sweetback man.” There are a few other fascinating books about jazz in the period: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans by Thomas Brothers; Donald M. Marquis’s In Search of Buddy Bolden, and John McCusker’s Creole Trombone.

My most valuable source, however, was an oral history project conducted by the Friends of the Cabildo historical society. Beginning in the 1970s, these amateur historian set out to interview elderly New Orleanians about their pasts. There are roughly 200 interviews in total, most of them conducted about 40 to 30 years ago. They are only available on cassette tape at the New Orleans Public Library’s Louisiana Division. I was able to find about tow dozen interviews in which the subjects recalled life in New Orleans between 1910 and 1920. From those conversations, I learned that the great merchant ships from Buenos Aires brought to the wharves sacks of coffee, bones, and dried blood; that riding the ferry back and forth across the Mississippi was through to be a cure for whooping cough; that the chimney man used a palmetto frond for a brush.

The storyline of King Zeno revolves around the ambitions, fears, and hopes of its three main characters: police detective Bill Bastrop; business executive and Mafia widow Beatrice Vizzini; and struggling jazz musician Izzy Zeno. Tell me how you approach character development, and what you find to be the most rewarding and challenging aspects of this skill in ficiton writing–especially in this book.

There were a number of technical challenges in making sure the dramatic narratives of the three characters lined up, to avoid allowing one storyline’s revelations from interfering with another’s. It’s not the most exciting part of the writing process, but I find it satisfying to make the trains run on time.

When it comes to writing characters, however, the only reward is when you feel that a character has come to life. Until then, it is torture.

You have written one non-fiction book, San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present, and  you are known for your magazine work of short stories and essays. Between these and  your novels, what kinds of writing would you say you enjoy the most?

Fiction is the most pleasurable, since it grant the greatest freedom; it’s the form that occupies most of my time. But getting out into the world for the journalist pieces–getting out physically as well as mentally–keeps me sane. It also allows for a more immediate response to an idea or a subject than the fiction; my novels have taken about five years to write. As for the critical essays; among other advantages, studying other writers’ work helps me to clarify my thinking about my own writing.

Each of the three forms–fiction, journalism, criticism–informs the others. I am a better novelist for spending as much time as I do thinking critically about literature, and for forcing myself into uncomfortable situations as a reporter. But the forms are not as different as they might seem. The y each require a similar puzzling with a narrative logic, dramatic structure, tone, argument, description, precision.

After growing up in Manhattan, why did you eventually choose to make your home in New Orleans, and are you a jazz music fan yourself?

Like a lot of people who leave the places they’re from, I was ready for something different. The city began to seem stale to me, as crazy as that might sound when applied to a metropolis of that size. But I was getting the sense, about 10 years ago, that New York–or at least, my New York–was shrinking. I’d wanted to live in New Orleans since I was a teenager. It seemed like a city that knew itself, sores and all, and was largely indifferent to what was going on elsewhere. I loved that. The last thing I’d want is to move to a city that saw itself as a junior New York, a lesser rival with a chip on its shoulder.

I was also drawn to the lushness of the city’s culture, its difficult relationship with its landscape, the food, the music, the enchantment, the feverish energies–all the usual things that bring people here. After nearly 10 years, the city continues to surprise me, for better and worse. I don’t think you could say that about most places in America.

I do love jazz, and especially love the early New Orleans music, before it became self-conscious, when it was considered dangerous.

Are there future writing projects on the horizon for you that you can tell me about at this time? Any plans for more nonfiction?

I have a (long) short story in the new issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review called “Blue Rock” about three bad men trapped together in a lighthouse far out in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s based on a true story, and takes place around the same time as King Zeno.

Nathaniel Rich will be at Lemuria tonight (Tuesday, January 30) at 5:00 p.m. to sign and read from King Zeno.

Author Q & A with Steve Yarbrough

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (January 28)

Indianola native and longtime author Steve Yarbrough once again branches out into new territory (geographically speaking) with his newest novel The Unmade World, set in both Fresno, California, and Krakow, Poland, as he spins a tale of tragedy, remorse, grief, and, finally, redemption.

Steve Yarbrough

Steve Yarbrough

After living in Fresno himself for two decades even while becoming intimately familiar with his wife’s native country of Poland, Yarbrough weaves these two sites together seamlessly as his main characters are fatefully bound together by unimaginable pain. The story chronicles their decade-long struggle, 6,000 miles apart, to make sense of a life-changing tragedy.

The author of 10 previous books, Yarbrough has received numerous awards for his novels and short stories, including the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Awards for Fiction, among others.

An “aficionado” and instrumentalist of jazz and bluegrass music, he teaches in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and lives in Stoneham, Massachusetts, with his wife Ewa.

How did the Poland and California locations and your familiarity  with them drive the plot that forever ties an American journalist with a working-class, financially strapped Polish man who had come to the end of his rope?

Well, as you said, I lived in Fresno for two decades got to know it pretty well. It’s a city with some complexes, chief among them, the awareness that it’s ridiculed by people in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, and though I seldom felt moved to write about it when we lived there, the day finally came.

As for Krakow, we lived there, too, having bought an apartment there in 2002. I know it better than I know any American city. We don’t own a car in Poland, and so I walk everywhere. I came to love the city. Many of my best friends live there, and though we sold our apartment last year for reasons I won’t delve into, I fully expect to buy another one there one day, maybe even to retire there. It’s a magical city.

You have said that, in your writing, you’ve found that not boxing yourself into an outline is key to character development. Please explain how this works for you.

If I never surprise myself, how can I hope to surprise a reader? And if I sit down to do only what’s already planned out, when do I experience the joy of discovery, that galvanizing moment when the story takes a turn I didn’t foresee? Those are the moments I prize above all others. Not just in writing, but in life as well.

After the death of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident, main character Richard Brennan blames himself each day for having had too much to drink at dinner that night. He is convinced that, if he had been behind the wheel, instead of his wife, “everything that did happen wouldn’t have.” He begins to think of himself as a “lost man,” eventually realizing that he’s lost his motivation to work as a reporter. Meanwhile, life for Bogdan Baranowski, the driver of the other car, has become even more frayed as he deals with his guilt. What keeps them going as they begin to slowly carve out the roles that are left for them?

unmade worldI believe each of them is stronger than he initially thinks is the aftermath of that tragedy. Richard is a naturally skilled writer, and those abilities, along with a lifetime of trying to do an honest job as a reporter, eventually re-involve him in life.

Baranowski’s problem is that he had a hard time handling the transition from a state-controlled economy to the free market model and his business failures left him desperate. They’ve both got some resilience, and I think both of them are ultimately decent people.

Baranowski comes to realize that, as he puts it, his companion Elena’s world had become “unmade” in respect to the mysteries of how people come together in meaningful relationships. Describe the notion of the “unmade world.”

Elena is from that part of the Ukraine that was devastated by the recent conflict. Like Richard, she’s lost most of those who matter. Yet she’s tough. She’s a survivor, and ultimately all of the people at the heart of this novel–Richard, the female reporter named Maria who helps him investigate a gruesome murder, Baranowski, his criminal partner Marek–they’re survivors.

The world is coming unmade all around us. Wars all over the lobe, people being run down on the street in New York, subjected to acid attacks in London, to drone attacks in Iraq. There’s not a lot of stability anywhere. We need to find it in ourselves.

There is a scene in the story in which Baranowski is challenged by the idea that telling his story, and not walking away from it, could bring redemption. What can we learn from this?

In the era of alternative facts? I think we could adhere to what my grandmother used to tell me: “Don’t try to make folks think you’re something you’re not.” As Americans, we cling to the myth of our own innocence. Poles, in my experience, are a lot more likely to own up. As you know, having read the novel, Baranowski finally meets someone whom he trusts enough to tell her what he did. And she helps him begin to live a better life.

For several characters, there is a thread throughout the story that suggests the relevance of a belief in God, i.e., how just being in church by yourself can build courage, and how faith can help soothe the inevitable pains of the human experience. Why did you include this as an important element in the story?

Well, I’m a believer. Always have been. But I’m not a churchgoer. Or to say this more precisely, I don’t go to church services.

But I go to church frequently, especially in Poland, where churches are open pretty much all the time and you can go in and sit down and meditate or say prayers of whatever. I find comfort there.

I think about those who have sat there before me, in a country that suffered so brutally in the Second World War and then survived another 45 years with the Soviet boot on its neck.

I have faith in the triumph of the human spirit, even now, and I have faith in those who seek to help people in need.

Throughout the story, the continuing description of Baranowski includes an unsightly facial mole that seems to define his appearance. Is it in any way a metaphor of his life situation and the hurts he has endured?

I’d say it could represent both the hurts he has endured and those he has inflicted on others. At the same time, I’m not an overtly symbolic writer. As Flannery O’Connor told us, the wooden leg in “Good Country People” is first and foremost a wooden leg. That mole is first and foremost a mole.

Are there future writing projects you can us about?

I just started a novel about a pair of sisters. It begins in the Delta in the mid-70s. Right now, that’s about all I know. I’m waiting for the story to tell me where it wants to go.

Steve Yarbrough will be at Lemuria tonight (Monday, January 29, at 5:00 to sign and read from The Unmade World.

Author Q & A with Beth Ann Fennelly

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 15)

Beth Ann Fennelly, poet laureate of Mississippi, once again stretches her literary abilities with a new release she calls “a true hybrid.”

The Oxford author who has netted a considerable number of writing awards and accolades as a poet and novelist captures the attention of readers in a fresh, new approach with Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, with entries that range from one sentence to five pages.

heating & coolingThe micro-memoir, she has said, “combines the extreme abbreviation of poetry, the narrative tension of fiction, and the truth-telling of creative nonfiction,” in works that include “memories, quirky observations, tiny scenes, (and) bits of overheard conversations that, with the surrounding noise edited out, reverberate.”

Writing micro-memoirs, she said, was “liberating” after she had co-authored The Tilted World, a novel that required extensive research, with her husband Tom Franklin. “After living in the heads of characters, now my own thoughts, my own experiences, seemed newly fresh,” she said.

Additionally, Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables, and a book of nonfiction Great with Child. She’s won grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission (three times), the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her work has won a Pushcart Prize and was included three times in The Best American Poetry Series. She was also the first woman to claim the University of Notre Dame Alumni Association’s Griffin Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Writing.

Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, Fennelly said her first love was poetry, which she studied at the University of Notre Dame, earning first a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in 1993; and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas in 1998.

An English professor in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, Fennelly has been named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She and Franklin, also an English professor at Ole Miss, are the parents of three children.

At what point in your life did you discover that you were a writer?

I was always an artistic kid, loving the theater and music and reading and writing, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I got to college. That’s where I experienced my first truly great teachers and was exposed to contemporary poetry. In my high school, we only read the classics. I think that’s one reason why I take my job as a college professor so seriously–I know how an engaged teacher can turn a student’s life around.

Poetry is a different kind of writer’s challenge. How were you drawn to poetry?

Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly

I was drawn to the dynamic compression of poetry, almost like a chemical reaction–how can so few words trigger such a big response? Also, I was, and still am, in love with the sound of words, their mouth-feel, as wine enthusiasts say. It’s a huge pleasure to take a poem into your body through memorization and release it back into the world with the air that rises from your windpipe.

Your newest book is a nonfiction collection of brief personal thoughts, idea, and memories, along with several short essays. They deal with family, marriage, fears, triumphs, nostalgia, and hopes. Was this a collection you have gathered through the years, or did you write these specifically to be published as a book?

Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: We spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.

Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from our book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.”

Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-embedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing.

So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, “What if this ‘not writing’ I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small? Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.

Today, you and Tom are professors in the English department at Ole Miss, where you teach poetry and nonfiction writing–and where you have been named Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. What do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

I really like working with young adults–I think they keep me young in certain ways, because I’m always getting exposed to new ideas. I love the feeling of being in love with a book or an author, and not just conveying my own passion, but kindling that same passion in my students.

Books have been such important companions to me, and reading has schooled me in empathy and reflection. These are skills the world isn’t encouraging in our young people. I’m honored that I get the chance to share the transformative power of literature with them.

In 2016, you were named poet laureate for the state of Mississippi. What are your duties that go along with that?

I’ve just finished the first year of my four-year term, and I’ve had a blast. I’m interested in getting poetry in front of as many Mississippians as possible, especially children. The position is honorary in that there’s no salary involved, and therefore my “duties” are probably more “suggestions,” but I’m traveling to a lot of libraries and schools, and I’m deeply involved in our state’s Poetry Out Loud program, which I think every high schooler should be a part of.

Beth Ann Fennelly will be at Lemuria on Thursday, November 9, to sign and read from Heating and Cooling. The signing will begin at 5:00 p.m. and the reading will begin at 5:30.

Jamie sings the praises of ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Since I’ve been working at Lemuria, I’ve self-imposed a  rule of not writing about a book till I’ve finished it.

I am currently breaking that rule. Demolishing it. Splintering it without a shadow of hesitation or guilt.

sing unburied singJesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is lots of things:  brilliant, gorgeous, haunting, raw, tender, honest. Much like her National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones (a personal favorite of mine­), Sing takes place in an impoverished area of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Both books’ characters find themselves in a mix of relationships—familial, internal, romantic—yet Sing is in no way a cookie-cutter redux of SalvageSing shifts through various first-person narrators, and does so in a way that’s easy to follow.  If you’re having nightmarish flashbacks of Faulkner, don’t: these leaps between characters (mostly the 13-year-old, endearing Jojo and his difficult mother Leonie) aren’t pretentious displays of cleverness for its own sake. One of Ward’s gifts as a writer is a conspicuous wedge of human empathy. By getting into the mind of Jojo, we see his desire for toughness and tenderness, his need to be protector for his younger sister Kayla, and his longing to be a surrogate father for Kayla the way his own grandfather is for him. While Jojo lends us his frustration at his absent mother, the chapters from Leonie’s perspective help round her character. Her drug use isn’t entirely selfish—it’s her way of self-medicating the hurt of the violent death of her older brother. We see her doubting her own abilities as a mother, cursing herself, but trapped in her own self-doubt so as to prevent her from risking connection with her kids. Ward isn’t necessarily excusing Leonie’s behavior so much as she is explaining it, and showing us the complexity of the human heart in conflict with itself, to steal a phrase from Faulkner.

Ward’s fiction and nonfiction shows us the importance of personal, familial history, and how things from previous generations aren’t really all that previous. Her memoir Men We Reaped illustrates the struggle of generational poverty and quiet, systemic racism perfectly. The notion of inheritance manifests itself in Sing in a fascinating way: ghosts. I would never classify this novel as a fantasy/supernatural genre piece, nor do I think that is Ward’s intent. Leonie sees her dead brother, Given, but can’t hear him speak; Jojo meets his grandfather’s dead friend Richie, who tells him about their days in Parchman. The past isn’t past—another Faulkner phrase I’ll paraphrase—and the ghosts in Sing show us that.  The myriad difficulties of poverty, compounded with the burdens of racism, are hard to get away from.  They haunt their victims, float constantly over their shoulders, peek in-and-out of their vision, or sometimes present themselves in full view.

There’s probably more about the novel that this piece is missing. I’m halfway through the book, and as soon as I finish this post, I’ll open Sing, Unburied, Sing back up and skip sleep.  The book’s that good.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to it.

Ace Atkin’s Quinn Colson is back as sheriff in ‘The Fallen’

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 27)

Fans of Oxford novelist Ace Atkins will savor the butt-kickin’ return of protagonist Quinn Colson as sheriff in The Fallen (G.P. Putnam).

atkins fallenAll the familiar denizens of the fictional town of Jericho, Mississippi, (faintly like the Oxford we all know, perhaps stripped to its roots) are there–if not in person, then in memory.

Loyal, tough-as-nails, and sharpshooter deputy Lillie Virgil is there–but for how long? The loyal one-armed mechanic, Boom, is there; this time, sleuthing out the mystery of two missing teens as the behest of Colson’s sister, Caddy, behind the sheriff’s back.

His Elvis-worshipping momma Jean is there, still dishing out heaping helpings of Southern food and sound advice.

The major clash is a trio of ex-Marines who, having returned from war, want excitement, cash, and blood through heists while brandishing weapons and wearing Donald Trump masks (complete with R-rated quotes from the president while robbing banks).

In many ways, book 7 in the Colson series is like many of the others: Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger, enjoys tooling around in a big pickup (the Green Machine), smoking cigars (now Drew Estate Undercrowns over his previously preferred La Gloria Cubana), and finding himself in binds caused by the local good ol’ boy power structure while dealing with deadly scofflaws.

His love life is still hopelessly conflicted , with the rekindled romance of his high school sweetheart now a hurtful memory, the fling with the coroner Ophelia Bundren cut short after she threw a steak knife at him, and the continuing unresolved tension with Virgil.

But there’s a new woman in town, Maggie Powers, who it turns out, used to run with Colson when they were kids.

She’s grown up nicely–but has conflicts and dangers of her own.

This time around, there’s a new owner of the strip club/rent-by-the-hour motel on the interstate: Fannie, a striking redhead who oozes reserved sensuality, hiding her brutal upbringing with fine cars and clothes, but knows how to hurt and even kill with indifferent calculation.

The old guard–despite the old crime boss Johnny Stagg now in prison–is still quite virulent, though keeping in the shadows. And, in a foreshadowing of Colson books to come, it seems intent on regaining full power, with the help of the Southern mafia from the Coast.

All in all, The Fallen is a worthy contender in the series and the type of fast-paced mystery Atkin’s readers have come to expect.

There is one jarring issue that stands out in this book, a plethora of foul language. In previous novels, there was plenty of cussing, and, it’s perhaps to be expected among some of the characters, including military types and hardcore criminals. That’s easily shrugged off. But The Fallen abounds in profanity, even from children.

Atkins, a master craftsman with 21 novels, including the deftly written Spenser books, seems to have fallen into a trap of substituting cursing for dialogue. And there’s no difference in the spewing of it by the various characters, as if all were merely one person speaking out of several mouths. It flattens their texture, destroys any nuance, robs them of their individuality, and (the ultimate sin of the writer) distracts from the narrative.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Read, Lead, and Succeed: ‘The Talented Ribkins’ by Ladee Hubbard

talented ribkinsThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is an amazing book to read, and yet the meaning can be evasive until the main character, Johnny Ribkins, can be fully understood. Johnny is a 72 year-old member of an extraordinary African-American family: the Ribkins, descendants of the Rib King™ (“said to have invented the best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast”).  Each member has an extraordinary talent, or power, whose value can be initially dubious, and, in isolation, maybe useless. Johnny can make maps of places he has never been nor seen, his brother Franklin can climb anything (even flat walls), his cousin Bertrand can spit fire, and his niece Eloise can catch anything that is thrown at her.

Initially, during the Civil Rights movement, Johnny organized his family (and some similarly-gifted friends) to form the Justice Committee, dedicated to helping Civil Rights heroes through their Freedom of Movement Movement, allowing them to move safely about the country. But when the Justice Committee falls apart due to interpersonal conflict, money issues, and Johnny’s escalating paranoia and flights of fancy, Johnny feels lost. Later, after he discovers the existence of his half-brother Franklin, and his wall-climbing capability, he turns to a life of crime as thieves-for-hire.

His partnership with Franklin eventually sours, too, leaving him freelancing his maps for slick gangster Melvin Meeks, from whom Johnny has been embezzling money for years. Now, Johnny has one week to pay off his $100,000 debt to Meeks. His plan is to raid his squirrel-holes from his past all up and down Florida, having burying money like a paranoid pirate, in places that are almost designed to bring back memories. It should be a relatively easy job, what with the amount of money he has stashed away. But he keeps running into people who need a hand-up, and ends up paying for two mortgages. Also, he finds the nature of his mission radically altered: his discovers, for the first time, his deceased brother Franklin’s 13 year-old daughter, Eloise (of catching ability). Soon, he finds her escorting her all over Florida, introducing her to her people, the talented Ribkins, and what it means to live life when you’re just a little bit…different.

The name of this novel and its themes are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the Talented Tenth. Basically, DuBois argued that a well-educated aristocracy of African-Americans would, if educated and equipped, rise up and lead the race of their race into prosperity and success. While this idea might sound elitist, context is critical. He was countering Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise“: that the races could be separate as the fingers, but work together as one hand economically. While Washington accomplished much and was interested in black advancement, his ideas appealed to pragmatic white supremacists, who wanted to keep black people not only humble but subservient. DuBois’s arguments were for black dignity, and full personhood, although not every black person would benefit initially.

The Ribkins are literally talented, standing in (in many ways) for the Talented Tenth. Eloise is talented and smart, but young and the product of a single-parent home. Can the examples of the elder Ribkins be emulated? Should they be? Do all the Ribkins(and Flash and the Hammer, the friends from the Justice Committee) use their talents the same way, and for the same purpose? This is important background information for a novel that is neither parable nor allegory, but definitely infused with important ideas.

But this isn’t a book with just ideas, it is filled with artistry and craft. The setting and history is immersive, and the characters are unique and memorable. Johnny himself is a cipher whose nature seems to shift through the paradigm of whatever old acquaintance he is interacting with. He is an interesting foil for Eloise, who is in the youthful process of discovering herself and her potential. The journey they make is an odd odyssey, filled with hosts with their own complicated motivations. Personally, one of my very parts is the “pie scene,” filled with some of the most delicious dramatic tension I have ever read.

Ultimately, though, you can’t fully appreciate the book until you finish it, when the story comes back home to Leigh Acres, when you find out what Johnny really is (and, for that matter, the true nature of Eloise is capable of). It is then that you see the way forward, and you will understand what DuBois says later when looking back at his Talented Tenth idea:

My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a TalentedTenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.

Ladee Hubbard will serve as a panelist on the “First Fiction: The Discovery of the Debut” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 4 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.

ms book fest

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kim Church’s ‘Byrd’

(With sincerest apologies to Wallace Stevens)

byrd (2)

I

The title character of Kim Church’s Byrd is Byrd, a boy born in North Carolina in 1989 who is given up for adoption by his mother, Addie Lockwood. He is almost a McGuffin, almost completely absent from the narrative, except that the story follows the lives of people important to him in his birth family, especially his birth mother Addie, and to a lesser extent, his birth father, Roland Rhodes. This book is a long shadow cast by the boy Byrd.

II

I stumbled across this book while receiving inventory for the store in the backroom. For technical reasons I won’t bore you with, I thought Byrd was a new release. It is not; it was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books (a small publisher), and only in paperback. Lemuria has only ever ordered two copies, three years late, and the only one it has ever sold (as of this writing) has been to me. This book is criminally underappreciated.

III

Besides Ron Rash telling me this was a good book in a blurb, I was sold on it by the first sentence of the summary on the back: “Addie Lockwood believes in books.” I know what that means. Addie shares my opinion, or perhaps I share hers, that The Brothers K by David James Duncan is an “Unheard-Of Masterpiece.” Addie seems a little bit more ambivalent about the process of bookselling than I am, but to each her own.

IV

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V

I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of this book. I had to put it down the first time, because I was reading something else and didn’t want to crowd it. First of all, it handles the old verities of hope, of loss, and of human folly with a deft, humanistic touch. Second, Church handles the use of time exceedingly well. The story covers a huge stretch of time, about forty-odd years of Addie’s life. Even though the progression is linear, it is still an accomplishment to make it feel so smooth. Church reminds of another female North Carolina writer, Anne Tyler, in this way.

VI

Look, what I’m about to share does not convey, exactly, the main thematic thrust of the book, but it’s my favorite passage because I’m kind of a romantic, and I’m always detained and delighted when I find a new way of thinking about love. Also, the passage is beautiful and poetic. Here it is:

Neither of them thinks of love the way they used to, as something to be fallen into, like a bed or a pit. It isn’t big or deep or abstract. Love is particulate. It’s fine. It accumulates like dust.

VII

Not one character is this book is wasted, or less than human. Not Addie, not Roland, not Addie’s mother Claree nor her father Bryce, not Addie’s astrologer Warren, not Roland’s wife Elle. I am convinced Church could have plucked any random background figure out of the book, made them fascinatingly human, and made their story cohere to the whole.

VIII

As a coincidence, this article from The Atlantic, written two years ago in response to Pope Francis’s remarks about declining Western birthrates and a then-newly published anthology about chosen childlessness, came up in my Facebook feed. Byrd, in this book, is an accident. His conception, yes, of course, but also his birth itself. Addie’s attitude about her decision, and her subsequent gnawing curiosity about the life she created, is one of the subtlest motifs in an already subtle book. Setting aside the raging inferno surrounding the abortion debate in our culture, the discussion of a birth in our society is only easy when everything goes right and everyone is wanted, shunting miscarriage, infertility, chosen childlessness, and sometimes adoption into a silence that I am grateful that fiction can sometimes have the ability to fill.

IX

And speaking of accidents, I can’t help but thinking about the book I previously talked about in this spaceCareless People (a bibliographical biography of The Great Gatsby). It refers to a forgotten meaning of the word accident: “Catholic theologians used the word ‘accidental’ to describe the inessential bread and wine left behind after the ritual of communion had turn them into mystical symbols…accidentals [are] the inessential objects that once glittered…disenchanted things made ordinary again….the accidental is all that we are left with once we have lost our illusions.” This is what Byrd, or the knowledge of Byrd, is for Addie after she loses her illusions about Roland.

X

Not that I guess this has much to do with anything, but would it surprise you to know that Church, the author, used to be a high-powered lawyer? That choice speaks to an ambition exceeded by anybody in this novel, including Addie. That Church chose to write this book instead of a legal thriller is to me (who enjoys a good legal thriller now and again) a minor miracle.

XI

Byrd does have an interesting surrogate in this novel, his half-brother Dusty. His existence doesn’t seem to answer any questions about Addie, but it does offer a lot of insight about Roland, and in general people’s capacities to change or to love. So I guess it does tell about Addie, in a suggestive rather than definitive way. That this is the way the whole book operates might drive some people crazy, but it’s part of why I love it so.

XII

Addie’s greatest secret, besides withholding Byrd’s existence from Roland the second time, is that her affair with Roland in the first place. Not that she had an affair, not that it produced a child, not that she gave her child up, but because it was with Roland, whom she supposed she should be over. This book could be a coming-of-age novel, but it lasts so long in Addie’s life that it is also an age-passing-by novel. It is not only about the making of a person, but the consideration, evaluation, and self-doubt about who that person becomes.

XIII

Almost the very last words of the book are Addie’s “I have hopes but no expectations.” I hope I haven’t spoiled the book by telling you that, but what I really worry is that I’ve spoiled the book by telling you any of this. I have certainly implanted some sort of expectation in you, the reader, if you’ve read this far, if you’ve decided to give the book a chance. Expectations of not only the plot, which I believe are overrated, but of this book’s quality. With this handicap, I don’t think you can enjoy the total surprise Byrd was for me, but even a shadow of the surprise is still astonishing, I assure you.

blackbird rise

Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues: Nick White’s ‘How to Survive a Summer’

Books about strange experiences have always been my guilty pleasure. I enjoy reading about things I have never done, events that are unlikely to ever happen to me, because I like attempting to understand the unfamiliar. But I also have a purely entertainment-based fascination with things that seem too bizarre for real life. This is why I first picked up How to Survive a Summer by Mississippi native Nick White.

ht survive a summerWhite’s debut novel is about a man who, as a teenager, went to a gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. When the story of the camp is made into a movie, the main character, Will Dillard, returns to his roots and finally reckons with his past. The story is told through memories and reads almost like a memoir, as it focuses on emotions and is told primarily through internal dialogue. But the plot–the truth of what really happened that summer–kept me turning pages.

As Will weaves down the Natchez Trace towards the old campsite, he remembers his deceased mother, his unusual childhood, his sexual realizations, and eventually the conversion camp–all in zigzags that lead to one final twist. He encounters a full spectrum of people: a transgender love interest who calls too much, a sheltered librarian whose hospitality is taken too far, and a misguided uncle who once tried to help AIDS victims.

What initially drew me to How to Survive a Summer was the strange setting of a gay conversion camp. But what pulled me in were the real emotions of relatable characters. Each one was involved with the camp for a different reason, and the ways they cope with the past are just as varied. As the narrative progressed, I realized that it is an intentionally villain-less story. Nick White compassionately gives each person reasons for their actions. He paints unique people against the backdrop of one specific tragedy. The result is a reminder that every person comes to grips with his story in his own way, and that outward appearances have nothing to do with the truth inside.

Author Q & A with John Grisham

Interview with John Grisham by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (June 18).

John Grisham’s story that took him from small-town lawyer to master of the legal thriller is a tale that even he couldn’t have imagined.

But the incredible success he’s experienced since his first novel was published in 1988–which would lead to 30 bestsellers and counting–is strictly nonfiction.

With the release of his latest work, Camino Island (Doubleday), Grisham takes a recess from the courtroom and goes beachside in what he is calling “a great beach read.”

He’s also hitting the road for the first time in 15 years with a book tour that will bring him to a dozen cities nationwide, including Square Books in Oxford and Lemuria Books in Jackson.

caminoCamino Island is a book about books, booksellers, bookstores, and the rare book business. In this fictional account of the dramatic heist of four original F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts from the Princeton University library, most of the story unfolds in the quiet resort town of Santa Rosa, Florida. Main characters Bruce Cable, who owns a popular book store there and Mercer Mann, a hopeful young author, square off in a high-stakes tale of espionage, betrayal, and theft–all within the mysterious world of the rare books trade.

When Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was released 29 years ago, and, in his words, “was a flop,” he decided to give it one more try before abandoning his dram of becoming a writer. With the blockbuster success of The Firm in 1991, he’s never looked back, releasing a book a year ever since.

JohnGrisham_credit Billy HuntBorn in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1955, Grisham spent most of his childhood in Mississippi, and went on to earn an accounting degree from Mississippi State, and then a law degree from Ole Miss. He was working as an attorney in Southaven and serving as a member of the Mississippi Legislature when he began writing full-time.

All of his books have became international bestsellers, and he now has more than 300 million in print worldwide. Nine of those, including A Time to KillThe FirmThe Pelican Brief, and A Painted House have become successful films. His writings also include the nonfiction work The Innocent Man and a collection of short stories, Ford County. He has also written a series for young readers that features 13-year-old character Theodore Boone offering legal advice to his classmates.

When he’s able to take a break from his writing desk, Grisham enjoys devoting time to charitable work (including his Rebuild the Coast Fund after Hurricane Katrina); and his lifetime passion of baseball, as both a local Little League commissioner and the developer of six Little League ball fields on his property.

Why did you decide to do another multi-city book tour after 25 years–and why did you wait that long?

grish lemuriaThe last big book tour I did was in 1992, when The Pelican Brief came out. I was living in Oxford at the time, and I knew Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown. They were always hanging around the bookstore (Square Books), and they talked me into doing a big book tour that turned out to be 35 cities in 34 days. It was not fun and I didn’t think it was productive. I told my publisher I can go back to Oxford and write books or hit the road and do publicity.

So, I never did a tour like that again, but I did continue to have signings at five stores: Square Books, Lemuria, Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo, a store in Memphis and one in Blytheville, Arkansas for about 10 years. those five were really helpful when A Time to Kill came out, and they really supported me. So, it’s been 15 years since I’ve done this, and this time it will be 12 cities.

How has your writing changed since A Time to Kill came out in 1989?How have you changed?

There have been no deliberate changes in my writing, as far as the style, procedure, and process. I write every morning for a few hours, and I write a certain number of words each day. As far as how I’ve changed–I’ve aged 30 years.

Camino Island is the story of a grand-scale heist that leaves the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four novels missing–and it weaves a fascinating behind-the-scenes tale of the world of rare books. Why did you choose the works of Fitzgerald as the target for this crime?

The fact that Fitzgerald had fewer manuscripts–he had published four novels–was a huge factor. And I’ve always been a big follower of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. They were all born about the same time (late 1800s-early 1900s) and were the greatest writers of that generation. Fitzgerald had the fewest manuscripts, and they were all in one place, the library at Princeton. Faulkner had at least 40. He was very meticulous about his manuscripts and took care of them, and that would be a lot to try to steal at one time.

Do you collect rare books?

I’ve been collecting rare books for probably 25 years–a lot of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. There have been several dealers I’ve known and worked with through the years. My wife actually bought a copy of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury from (Jackson’s Lemuria Books owner) John Evans for me.

Tell me aobut your relationship with bookstores and booksellers–have bookstores been a special place for you?

They still are special to me. When I’m traveling I usually try to sneak into a bookstore and see what all is for sale, see if my books are selling. If they have a coffee shop or cafe, that’s a nice touch. I go to bookstores and talking with booksellers is something I always enjoy doing. Bookstores are dwindling in numbers now, and many are fighting to preserve them.

What was the hardest book for you to write, for whatever reason? What was the easiest?

Easy, and fun to write and without much research–would be Calico Joe. I love baseball and really enjoyed writing that one. Camino Island was fun–the world of the murky and mysterious world of rare books and how much they’re worth now. The Chamber was probably the toughest to write. I spent a lot of time on death row in Mississippi doing research.

Is there a topic, a style, a genre, you haven’t tackled yet, but want to?

There are a couple of books based on things I might like to write about. One is a sort of fictional memoir of my childhood and life, like in (my novel) A Painted House. It would be going on in Memphis about a 15-year-old boy who thought he was going to Vietnam, after seeing his friend come home in a box. That’s something I think about–kind of personal stuff. Who knows, I still might write it.

You have another book coming out in October, another legal thriller, this one about student debt–a very topical subject now. What can you tell me about it?

Not much–I have a rule not to talk about a book while I’m writing it. It’s about law students. It’s still untitled.

Your first book was rejected by many publishers. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

It was turned down by about 15 publishers and 15 agents. That’s not unusual for a first-time author. And what I know now that I didn’t know then: everything. I knew nothing then about writing or getting published. I was a state legislator and a small-town lawyer, barely 30 and so naïve.

Oxford’s Square Books owner Richard Howorth told me you were very persistent in getting your first book published–and that you wanted to sell “lots and lots” of books. Considering that you have a degree in accounting from Mississippi State, does that kind of determination come from your accounting side, or would you say it was strictly ambition?

I think it was ambition. I had practiced law 10 years in Southaven. I was looking fo a way out because I knew I wasn’t going to make a lot of money. After 10 years of working hard, I wrote A Time to Killin 1989 and it was a flop. I said I will do this–I will write a book–one more time and see what happens. I wrote The Firm, a book that I thought would be more commercial. The fact that movie rights for that book were sold before it was published was a fluke deal that could never be repeated–it was a lucky break that would only happen once.

Long-term, what do you see in your future?

I’m 62 years old. I’m still enjoying this immensely. I certainly have no plans for a career change, or for slowing down. I intend to write one book, maybe two, a year.

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