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Mon February 21, 2011
Hadacol Days : A Southern Boyhood
Clyde Bolton is one of Alabama's best-known and admired writers. His new book, "Hadacol Days," seems much less edgy, lively and immediate. It is of course smoothly told?Bolton knows how to write?but the story seems a distant overview, more a summary than an analysis, pleasant and nostalgic, a report about an age when it was still safe to hitch-hike.
By Don Noble
Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio
Clyde Bolton is one of Alabama's best-known and admired writers. During his 40-year career at the "Birmingham News" as sports writer, columnist and editor, Bolton wrote 15 volumes of fiction and nonfiction, in his spare time, as it were. Most of the nonfiction was about sports?football, basketball and auto racing?and the novels usually evoked his childhood in various small towns in Georgia and Alabama.
The best of the novels, however, is surely the fully imagined "Nancy Swimmer: A Story of the Cherokee Nation."
Since retirement in 2001, Bolton has written a memoir of his time at the "Birmingham News," "Stop the Presses (So I Can Get Off)." This was a lively volume, with a spirited defense of auto racing, a number of portraits of other newspaper men, first-hand, candid portraits of Coach Paul Bryant and Shug Jordan and a running commentary on the changes in sports in Alabama over 40 years, especially the rise of NASCAR and basketball.
This new book, "Hadacol Days," seems much less edgy, lively and immediate. It is of course smoothly told?Bolton knows how to write?but the story seems a distant overview, more a summary than an analysis, pleasant and nostalgic, a report about an age when it was still safe to hitch-hike.
Bolton is telling in this book the story of his childhood, stopping before his career as writer. His father was a railroad man and the family moved often and lived modestly.
In grades 1-12 Bolton attended 10 different schools. He sketches in the schools, the school chums, the swimming holes (complete with water moccasins), riding bicycles and, not surprisingly, the huge importance of sport, mainly basketball and football.
The school closest to his heart was Statham, Georgia, where the cheerleaders led the crowd in this chant: "Statham Wildcats on the ball?They've been drinking Hadacol!"
Hadacol, Bolton informs us, was a tonic marketed as a vitamin supplement and was in fact 12 percent alcohol. Once very popular, Hadacol is no more.
Born in 1936, Bolton was raised, as I was, in the American forties and fifties, and he pronounces that era, as many of our generation now do, idyllic. "The fifties were the best possible generation in which to have grown up."
In fact the most amusing parts of this book to me were not the rosy recapitulations of life in the fifties, but rather the Ciceronian, old-coot laments for the general falling-off since that Golden Age.
On the serious end, Bolton tells us he'd occasionally go to downtown Atlanta by himself. "How long do you think an eight-year-old boy alone in downtown Atlanta would last today?" he asks.
He tolerates regimented sports, like youth soccer, today, instead of informal after-school sandlot sports because "Better the children are being regimented than being inundated by the constant flow of filth on television or being seduced by the scum of the earth?namely drug dealers."
He has a word to say about the popular arts as well.
"Today's television is a cesspool, vulgar to see and hear."
"The movies of ? [that] day weren't profane or pornographic like the garbage that is spread over the screens today."
"The music [then] had actual words you could understand, and the artists weren't hideously tattooed, and they wore shirts, and they didn't bite the heads off bats and set their guitars on fire."
As Archie Bunker used to sing, "those were the days."
Mostly, it is tempting to agree that American everyday life has not gotten better. It is harder to see what good it does to lament the passing of Fibber McGee and Molly. That was also the era, we might remember, of strict segregation and infantile paralysis.
This book deserves and will get its share of readers. I predict they will be mostly seniors, however, who share Bolton's yearning for what is recalled now as a simpler, more innocent time.
As a fan of Bolton's writing over the years, it worries me some not to like this book more, but I am assured that he won't mind the criticism, because he has learned, he tells us, from Andy Warhol of all people, a bit of philosophy: "I have long since passed the age at which I worry about what people think of me."
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."