Tuesday, June 10, 2008 

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.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 

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.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007 

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.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 

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?

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 

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.

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Bio

Jay Busbee runs Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR Blog From The Marbles, Atlanta Magazine's Atlanta sports blog Right Down Peachtree, and the Southern sports/humor blog Sports Gone South. He also writes for damn near anybody who'll throw him a buck and a byline, and he's at work on the books The Quiet Dynasty: The History Of The Atlanta Braves' Championship Run (2009, Sports Publishing LLC) and God Is A Bulldog: Georgia, Florida, And The Greatest Play In College Football History (2010, Sports Publishing LLC). Click below for more info on his novels, articles, and comics.
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