Lewis Nordan: Humor, Heartbreak, and Hope

Sep 27, 2012

Lewis Nordan: Humor, Heartbreak, and Hope

Editor: Barbara A. Baker

Publisher: University of Alabama Press; A Pebble Hill Book

Pages: 204

Price: $25.00 (Paper)

This volume of essays and interviews comes out of a symposium held at Auburn University in January of 2009 to honor the life and work of Lewis “Buddy” Nordan. The affection for Nordan at that meeting was palpable. Originally from the town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta, Nordan had taken a Ph.D. at Auburn, living in nearby Loachapoka. Old friends, readers, fellow writers like the novelist John Dufresne, book critics like Hal Crowther and academic critics like Marcel Arbeit from the Czech Republic and Manuel Broncano from Spain gathered on the Auburn campus to discuss Nordan’s work.

The conference, informally called Buddy Fest, turned out to be a splendid idea, for Nordan, present at the conference but not well at the time, died three years later, on April 23rd of this year.

Nordan, the author of several comic novels and collections of stories, had recently been the center of some controversy when he published his memoir “Boy with Loaded Gun.” Hal Crowther in fact had scolded Nordan in the “Oxford American” for revealing so much about himself, especially his experiences rooming with an odd couple who had a sex machine. Crowther’s position was of the “I don’t believe I would have told that” school.

Nordan had since declared that the ratio of fiction to truth in the book was the same as his novels, in reverse, and the book was to be reissued as fiction. Those interested in the “should memoir be the truth controversy” might check this out. Nordan’s memoir also includes the hysterical scene where he locks himself out of his hotel room, naked, and covers himself with single sheets of wet toilet paper from a hall restroom to sneak down to the desk.

Incidentally, the memoir was to have been called “Don’t Cry for Me, Itta Bena” but the New York publishers couldn’t pronounce Itta Bena and so didn’t get the joke.

There are a couple of academic essays in this volume, especially one by Marcel Arbeit on the various narrative voices in Nordan’s memoir, that may not be for the general reader.

Most of these essays, however, would be accessible and engaging for anyone who had read Nordan, especially his story collections “Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair,” or “Sugar Among the Freaks,” or his novels “Music of the Swamp” or “Wolf Whistle,” which was inspired by the Emmett Till murder.

Manuel Broncano traces the influences of South American “magical realism” on Nordan. Terrell L. Tebbetts shows the influence of Faulkner, especially the characters from “The Sound and the Fury”—even though Nordan denies it. Constance C. Relihan shows the influence of Shakespeare’s late plays, the subject of Nordan’s dissertation, on Nordan’s prose—but Nordan pretty much denies this, too.

Roberta S. Maguire’s essay discusses the role of the scapegoat in “The Sharpshooter Blues,” taking a kind of anthropological approach.

Nordan’s own talk is a pure pleasure.

He reveals, perhaps truthfully, that the settings for his fiction seem to be the Delta but that “The things that began to happen to me in Loachapoka are the things that began to come out disguised as things in Mississippi in my later work.”

These topics may sound more forbidding than they are. This book is quite readable, especially if you have enjoyed Buddy’s fictions. If you haven’t, read them first.