Category Archives: Southern Lit

BLUFF CITY, my latest book, is now on sale! Buy buy buy!

Bluff-City-Cover-FinalGreat news! I’m very proud to announce the release of BLUFF CITY, my new novel. Quick version: go right here to Amazon to buy it. And if you want to know more, check out the handy FAQ below.

What’s it about?

Memphis, man. Memphis. Elvis, blues, barbecue, strippers, wrestling, the KKK, gunfire, gambling … this book’s got it all, friend. Here’s the description:

Luther Washington is the last of the great bluesmen, a legend now reduced to playing a fourth-rate Mississippi casino bar. But when two down-on-their-luck gamblers, flat busted and cleaned out from a bad night’s run at the casino tables, decide to kidnap Luther, he suddenly becomes famous all over again. Everyone from white supremacists to church congregations wants to get their hands on the old bluesman, and things descend into bad craziness in a hurry. In the mix are a housewife who finds her true calling as a grifter; a disgraced former heavyweight champ seeking a shot at redemption; a hotshot sportswriter running for his life after writing a too-revealing profile of the city’s star athlete; and a reverend who knows a lot more about the kidnapping than he’s telling his flock. The whole crew comes together at the Elvis Brawl, a worldwide pay-per-view extravaganza starring wrestling Elvis impersonators, while outside, the city nears its boiling point.

Sweet. So where do I get it?

Right now, it’s available on Amazon right here for the Kindle platform. (If you don’t have a Kindle, see the list of devices on the right side of that page that can run the Kindle’s software. If you’re reading this, you have the hardware it takes to read a Kindle book.) Soon, very soon, it’ll be available for the Nook and on the iBooks and Kobo bookstores, among others.

Is it only available in ebook format?

Yep. Here’s the deal on ebooks: they’re in the stage right now where music was in 1999 and movies were in 2003 — that is to say, starting to make inroads into the public consciousness but not quite breaking huge yet. Once tablets are as popular and widespread as iPods are, and they will be, ebooks are going to blow away print in terms of sheer numbers. (When’s the last time you bought a CD?)

Plus, the possibilities for controlling your publishing destiny are vastly more favorable with ebooks than with traditional publishing alone. Author Barry Eisler recently turned down a half-million-dollar advance on two books because he believed in the possibilities of e-publishing, and this is a guy who’s a New York Times bestselling author. That’s saying something.

Will Bluff City ever come out in paper form?

Yeah, possibly. But man, it takes so freaking long to get work out in hard copy — if I started the process right now, it’d be September or October at the earliest that it’d be available — and I’ve gotten kind of addicted to seeing my work out there within a few minutes (or days, in this case) of writing it. I’m not in this part of the writing game to get rich, but I am in it to get read.

Self-publishing? Isn’t that the last refuge of the people who can’t get published?

Yep. But they aren’t the only people out there doing this. Sure, there’ll be a lot of self-published crap out there about unicorns and kittens, but I’m relying on you, my friends, to be able to tell the difference between that stuff and my work. (Fewer unicorns, more gunplay in mine.)

Plus, I’ve already traveled this route before, starting a tiny little sports site that had exactly two readers its first week. But the right people eventually saw that, and from there things turned out okay.

Fine, you win! I bought it!

Hey, thanks.

No sweat. So what now?

Well, read the damn thing. And if you like it, throw me up a review on Amazon (or wherever you bought it). Those are always nice. Word of mouth is going to carry the day here at first, so anything you feel like doing to tell your friends (or enemies) about the book would be welcome.

And if you have a website/podcast and you’d like to do a review or interview, by all means, hit me up. I’m happy to provide review copies or chat the thing up.

So what’s next?

In the back of the book, there’s a preview for RUN & SHOOT, my next book, scheduled to come out this fall. Start saving your pennies now. Won’t take long.

Seriously, friends, thanks so much for reading. I really hope you dig BLUFF CITY, and I really think you will.

God, murder and Elvis: setting the stage for BLUFF CITY

In just a few days, I’ll be rolling out the promo push on my new novel BLUFF CITY. Here’s a bit of a tease: the three epigrams I’m using to set the stage. Each of these has a particular significance to the story; read these, and you know what you’re getting into. Let’s begin, shall we?

Memphis was [in the 1820s] a small town, ugly, dirty, and sickly…Everything pointed to the certainty that in a short time this squalid village must grow to a great and wealthy city…but for many years, the population would be rough and lawless, and the locality and sanitary conditions of the town promised that disease and death would hold high carnival there.
—Reuben Davis, Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians

I love it when history books set the tone for the future. And this shows that Memphis is, and always has been, a barely-under-control town of lunacy, with tales on every streetcorner.

What is the American dream? It’s different things to different people. To a farmer, it’s a bountiful harvest that he can sell for a lotta money. To a photographer, it’s a beautiful picture that he can sell for a lotta money. To a soldier, it’s becoming a general, so that he can sell weapons to a foreign country for a lotta money. But maybe I can best express the American dream in a story. It’s about a kid who grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the early 1950s. He was a poor kid, but he had a rockin’ guitar, some flashy clothes, and a wiggle in his hips—and he had that certain something, called ‘talent.’ Of course, he never made a nickel, because he was black, but two years later Elvis Presley made a fortune doing the same thing.
–A. Whitney Brown, Saturday Night Live, 1987

Dead-bang perfect. The centerpiece of BLUFF CITY is Luther Washington, a down-on-his-luck bluesman who gets kidnapped and unintentionally sets in motion events that end up with the whole city on fire. This is the perfect description of how Memphis both revered Elvis and lost sight of those who made it possible for him to exist.

As a whole, we Southerners are still religious, and we are still violent. We’ll bring you a casserole, but we’ll kill you, too.
—Lee Smith

How awesome is this quote? This is pretty much everything that BLUFF CITY is, all wrapped up in one. The book’s big publicity push starts June 1. Make plans to grab a copy, won’t you?

Strippers are timeless, or why I’m dusting off my old unpublished novel

We don’t always end up where we expect we will in life. And if, by some miracle, we manage to hit a mark or two we’ve set for ourselves, it’s usually not by the route we expected to take.

When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to write novels. I wrote some really godawful ones — one in high school, one in college, one right after college, and two in grad school. (You can check out the last one, “The Face of the River,” right here. The less said about the first one, “Giri: A Debt Of Honor,” the better.) After grad school, while I was spending days playing Mr. Mom to my infant-then-toddler kids and nights writing about landfills for an environmental association, the whole novelist thing seemed a long, long way away.

But I kept writing, man. I wish I could say I was writing tirelessly, lighting one cigarette off the stub of another, a row of crumpled Red Bull cans ringing my desk. But the truth is that even though I had an idea for another novel, I sometimes went weeks, even months without writing a fictional word. Way leads on to way, you know, and at some point you wake up and realize that two, three, four or more years have passed since you started your little book. You can either give up, or you can plod on, stumbling step by step across the desert.

As for me, my little book is called BLUFF CITY, and a few years back, I finally finished the damn thing. I showed it to my agent, and while he liked it, he gave me the sad truth: first novelists without an established platform of publicity have about as much chance in this world as puppies on a freeway. Wonderful. All that wandering (I wrote and rewrote the thing three times) for nothing? Sure seemed that way, at least initially.

Around this time, I started the sports blog that would eventually lead to the gig with Yahoo! Sports. Way led on to way, and BLUFF CITY took a back seat to Tiger Woods, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the day-to-day needs of the blogosphere. It fell into that “someday/maybe” file from which few projects ever return.

But in the last couple years, something’s happened to change the publishing game. Ebooks have exploded in popularity in the way that digital music did in the early 2000s, the way digital movies and TV shows did in the mid-2000s, the way sports blogs did in the late 2000s. With a click of the mouse, you can put your work in front of the entire planet.

At some point in the last few weeks I came across a draft of BLUFF CITY. It’s the story of an old Mississippi bluesman who gets kidnapped from a Tunica casino, setting off events that end with Memphis in riots. It’s got Elvis, wrestling, the KKK, the blues, gunplay … oh, and strippers. Lots and lots of strippers.

You can tell from that description that we’re not talking Oprah’s Book Club material here. Which is fine; the discussion of literary vs. entertaining fiction is one for another time. BLUFF CITY is much more in the crime/comedy genre of Carl Hiaasen and “Rescue Me.” The author Tim Dorsey, one of the reigning masters of the genre, gave me a killer blurb: “Busbee does for Memphis what Hiaasen did for Florida,” and you can bet your ass I’ll be using that on the book’s cover.

Now, the words “unpublished novel” are two of the most painful in the English language, and with good reason. But as I was reading the book with fresh eyes, I came to a happy realization: BLUFF CITY is good. Legitimately, really, yes-I’m-the-author-but-I-wouldn’t-embarrass-myself-with-crap good. Sometime in the next few weeks, depending on production processes and the like, BLUFF CITY will go on sale at Amazon’s Kindle Store, iTunes’ iBooks, the Nook store, and a whole range of other outlets. And you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

What’s next for BLUFF CITY? We’ll see. Perhaps it’ll click; I’ve got a much larger regular readership than I did back when I wrote the thing. And perhaps it’ll sink with nary a ripple to mark its passage. But somebody’s going to read it, at long last, and hopefully it’ll be you.

So if you would, please check out BLUFF CITY when it hits. If nothing else, you’ll learn how to use a potato as a murder weapon. That’s useful knowledge.

Kids! Here’s what you do when a book gets banned!

Yeah, don't turn Huck into this.

Yeah, don't turn Huck into this.

Huckleberry Finn, which is coming out later this spring in a sanitized version, is one of the most banned books in American libraries. Reading about HF, I’m reminded of the words of another guy whose books get banned an awful lot:

“I would just say to you as students who are supposed to be learning, that as soon as that book is gone from the library, do not walk — run to your nearest public library or bookseller and find out what your elders don’t want you to know, because that’s what you need to know! Don’t let them bullshit you and don’t let them guide your mind, because once it starts, it never stops. Some of our most famous leaders have been book-banners, like Hitler, Stalin and Idi Amin.”

-Stephen King, Virginia Beach Public Library, 1986

Don’t read sanitized or abridged books. Go for the real thing. Here’s Huckleberry Finn exactly as Twain wanted it. (Twain was a big fan of HTML. Not much for Flash animation, you know.)

Southern lit review: Jon Clinch’s Finn

Just finished up an exceptional book, Jon Clinch’s Finn, which tells the story of Huckleberry Finn’s father from before Huck’s birth to just before his final appearance in Twain’s novel. Finn, as he’s called here, is a brutal, cruel man, lustful and petty and violent and indifferent all at once. Clinch has done something fascinating here, taking perhaps the best-known work of American literature — Hemingway called it the wellspring from which all American fiction sprang — and offering us a chance to view it in a completely new, yet utterly appropriate, light.

The entire book stems from these few paragraphs in Chapter 9 of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck and Jim come across the corpse of Finn himself in a ruined cabin:

“It’s a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked, too. He’s ben shot in de back. I reck’n he’s ben dead two er three days. Come in, Huck, but doan’ look at his face — it’s too gashly.”

I didn’t look at him at all. Jim throwed some old rags over him, but he needn’t done it; I didn’t want to see him. There was heaps of old greasy cards scattered around over the floor, and old whisky bottles, and a couple of masks made out of black cloth; and all over the walls was the ignorantest kind of words and pictures made with charcoal. There was two old dirty calico dresses, and a sun-bonnet, and some women’s underclothes hanging against the wall, and some men’s clothing, too. We put the lot into the canoe — it might come good. There was a boy’s old speckled straw hat on the floor; I took that, too. And there was a bottle that had had milk in it, and it had a rag stopper for a baby to suck … Jim he found a ratty old fiddle-bow, and a wooden leg. The straps was broke off of it, but, barring that, it was a good enough leg, though it was too long for me and not long enough for Jim, and we couldn’t find the other one, though we hunted all around.

Every single item named in that list there plays a significant role in Finn, and it’s only after reading both together that you see how seamlessly Clinch wove his story around Twain’s. The narrative loops around and around; the payoff for certain events hinted at in the book’s final pages actually came in the opening ten. It can be confusing as hell, at first, particularly with the apocalyptic William Gay/Cormac McCarthy Southern gothic tone and vocabulary, but once I finished it I literally flipped right back to the start and reread the first hundred pages to get the full sense of what had happened.

And while Huckleberry Finn is taught in middle schools — at least, those not held prisoner by illiterate ideologues — Finn is most definitely an adults-only book. Cannibalism, perversion, coldblooded murder — this is not a book for the squeamish. But Clinch has created a classic American figure out of the sketches Twain left behind, even adding a fascinating new twist to Huck himself that helps explain so much of why he did what he did. But Finn’s tragedy is how he never even thought to light out for the territories the way his son would.

Southern (Sort Of) Lit: Robert Stone’s Prime Green

Something about the Sixties has always both fascinated and bugged the hell out of me. While I’ve always been fascinated by the darker margins of the era — the climate that led to assassinations and Hunter S. Thompson — I’ve never had a whole lot of patience for the determined naivete of the hippie movement, which wrapped admirable goals and ambition in a gauzy, almost childlike haze from which modern liberalism has never really recovered.

Which is exactly what makes Robert Stone’s memoir, Prime Green, such a maddening book. Stone was one of the few people present during several of the Sixties’ highwater marks — Ken Kesey, San Francisco, Vietnam — with both the vision and ability to put his recollections into coherent form. Stone, the author of several outstanding novels including A Hall of Mirrors, had an astonishing opportunity here to put an authoritative stamp on a much-examined period of history…but rather than a home run, he ends up with, at best, a ground-rule double.

In the memoir, we follow Stone from his Korean-war era days in the Navy through an enviable progression across the world, from New Orleans to California to New York to Paris to Vietnam. We get some fascinating snippets, like the story of a cross-country bus trip that nearly turns tragic when some military men get a good look at the bearded, countercultural Stone, but ultimately this book comes up short in presenting anything of real depth. Stone’s an exceptional writer but an essentially pessimistic one, and he misses the chance both to give in-depth perspective on an era and to dig into self-examination — his own children get scant mention.

Bottom line: there are outstanding, timeless books about the Sixties — HST’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test first among them. It’s a shame Stone didn’t make the pantheon.

Southern Lit: Tim Dorsey’s Hurricane Punch

Tim Dorsey’s a writer you either get or you don’t. He’s slapstick combined with absolute on-the-ground realism, social commentary woven within satire so broad you can’t even see the edges of it. And man, any time he’s got a new book coming out, I’m right there.

His latest, Hurricane Punch, came out earlier this year, and I finally had a few minutes to finish it off last weekend. See, a Dorsey novel isn’t something you can flip through while waiting in line at the bank or whatever. No, it requires a mindset, preferably with some Buffett on the radio and a cold beer at your side. This is literature as lifestyle.
Dorsey’s specialty is Florida crime, in that genre that combines comedy and violence into a hybrid that nobody’s seemed to come up with a good name for — “black comedy” doesn’t quite get it (and has some unfortunate connotations for anybody not particularly well-versed in literary theory), and “crimedy” sounds just stupid. Whatever — it’s crime, it’s humor, and the two mesh perfectly.
With Dorsey, the destination’s not nearly as important as the ride. He picks a theme — the film industry, Florida politics, ecoterrorism — and cuts his two creations, Serge and Coleman (sort of a more homicidal version of Earl and Randy Hickey, though created years before) loose to wreak intentional and unintentional havoc. Hurricane Punch’s theme is in the title — no, it’s not punch — and Dorsey does his best to batter his state with as many hurricanes as possible in a single season, wrapping them in a murder mystery, psychotherapy, kidnapping, and delusions of Hendrixdom. (You kinda have to read the book.)
With Serge, a serial killer with a conscience, Dorsey is in an enviable position for a writer. He’s created a character who can literally become anything — politician, actor, doctor, Mafia don — and it’d not only be believable, it’d be conceivable. Serge’s fascination with all things Florida gives Dorsey a limitless canvas on which to work. I’d imagine many of the bars mentioned by name in here have their own little paragraphs framed up and mounted on the wall. (Reminds me of the time I was in the Woody Creek Tavern in Aspen, famed stomping grounds of the late Hunter S. Thompson. Framed right next to the exit was a blank waiter’s ticket on which Hunter had scrawled, “I promise never to throw smoke bombs in the bar again. HST.”)
Dorsey’s also got a kind of metafiction going on in his books, where certain of his characters act like their equivalent cliches — the hardboiled Raymond Chandleresque detective, the hardbitten crew of roughneck marines, the naughty pair of gorgeous hitchhikers — but it’s done in a winking, knowing way. It’s tough to explain, but it’s clear that Dorsey knows he’s playing with someone else’s toys and having fun with their limitations, like a master chef cooking up Pop Tarts.
The Serge/Dorsey freight train could literally run another fifty years; in Florida, when they ran out of land, they built bridges over the water. I wouldn’t mind seeing another departure from Florida; Serge has visited New York and Hollywood, but D.C., New Orleans, and — God forbid — Europe and Asia remain as yet untouched.
So Tim, if you’re reading this, see what you can do about sneaking Serge and Coleman onto a Chinese oil tanker. They’d be a hell of a lot more fun to see in action than Jack Bauer.

Southern Lit: "The Night Johnny Ace Died," James Lee Burke

If you consider yourself any kind of knowledgeable reader–or any kind of writer at all–you need to check out James Lee Burke, the reigning king of Southern crime lit. I’ve written about his Dave Robicheaux novels before; check this link for my thoughts on that series.

He’s also a damn talented short story writer, and he’s got a collection called “Jesus Out To Sea” coming out this summer. I’m assuming his latest, “The Night Johnny Ace Died,” will be in it, but in the meantime, you can get it for free by clicking right here and going to Esquire.com to read it.

“Johnny Ace” is the story of a couple of rockabilly musicians in the ’50s who sit right on the cusp of breakout and crossover success–they’re white and planning to record with black singing star Johnny Ace, but this is how the story begins:

He and Big Mama Thornton were taking a break backstage when it happened. The dance floor was covered with Mexican and black people, a big haze of cigarette and reefer smoke floating over their heads in the spotlights. White people were up in the balcony, mostly low-rider badasses wearing pegged drapes and needle-nose stomps and girls who could do the dirty bop and manage to look bored while they put your flopper on autopilot. Then we heard it, one shot, pow, like a small firecracker. Johnny’s dressing-room door was partly opened and I swear I saw blood fly across the wall, just before people started running in all directions.

And with Johnny dead–either by his own hand or from outside forces, we don’t know–it all goes downhill from there. In just a few thousand words, Burke packs in a novel’s worth of heartache, longing, betrayal, desire, and regret, plus an appearance by Elvis himself (referred to here only as “The Greaser”).
Whether you like Burke’s brand of florid, over-the-top description probably depends on whether you’re the kind of person who groans in delight or pain when Mom brings another overstuffed plate of food to the Thanksgiving table. Still, for all his rhetorical excesses, you can’t deny that Burke’s got some serious chops:

You know the secret to being a rockabilly or country music celebrity? It’s not just the sequins on your clothes and the needle-nose, mirror-shined boots. Your music has to be full of sorrow, I mean just like the blood-flecked broken body of Jesus on the cross. When people go to the Assembly of God church and look up at that cross, the pain they see there isn’t in Jesus’ body; it’s in their own lives. I’m talking about droughts, dust storms, mine blowouts, black-lung disease, or pulling cotton bolls or breaking corn till the tips of their fingers bleed. I went to school with kids who wore clothes sewn from Purina feed sacks…What I’m trying to say is, we come from a class of people who think of misery as a given. They just want somebody who’s had a degree of success to treat them with respect.

Good stuff. Click the link, take 15 minutes and check it out. How many times can you see someone getting kicked in the junk on YouTube, anyway?

Southern Lit Review–"Deliverance," James Dickey

It’s tough to review Deliverance — or, for that matter, any work that has so completely permeated the culture — with anything remotely approaching objectivity. Deliverance, in both book and movie form, has arguably done more than anything short of Klansmen to damage the reputation and image of the South. Sure, inbred banjo-pickin’ and sodomy existed long before James Dickey used them like machetes in his book, but Deliverance brought them to the mainstream. You can’t even think of the story without thinking of Ned Beatty’s “squeal like a pig” scene. (Beatty apparently came up with the line himself just before the one and only take of that scene; he’s reportedly never spoken of it since.) And just to hear the opening notes of Dueling Banjos is enough to send a shiver up to all but the reddest of necks.

Anyway, the story: four Atlanta businessmen decide to go canoeing in some uncharted river territory in north Georgia. Being suburban, and thus stupid, they assume they can either bluster or buy their way through the rural country-ass society. They make enemies fast, and before you can say — everybody at once now — “squeal like a pig,” they’re in deep, the bodies are piling up, and the choices before them are ugly indeed. To tell more than that would spoil the story for those of you who don’t know it. Suffice it to say that the horrific situations these men find themselves in don’t sound nearly so funny when they uncoil around you like a nest of snakes.

The title is one of the most fascinating and unexplored elements of the book. “Deliverance” implies passivity — a need for an outside entity to do the delivering. The question for these poor bastards is, who — or what — is delivering them, and what kind of world are they delivering them into? Our narrator talks at length of keeping settled in his humdrum, everyday existence; one of his colleagues continually rants about the need to bust out of that same box. And when events force them out of that hole, never to return to its comforts, well…it’s not hard to project yourself into their shoes. Hopefully not Ned Beatty’s.

Deliverance is one of the best novels of the 20th century. Read it…and beware of banjos.