Mrs. Faulkner’s Wedding

In this foreword to her son Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, Estelle Oldham (Franklin) Faulkner recounts her life before and wedding to her second husband, written at least five years before the publication of the book in 1977, the year of Franklin’s death.

For those who may be interested in Malcolm’s story of his close association of William Faulkner, I, his mother, feel compelled to write an unsolicited, explanatory forward. My son has written his own preface, as well as the text with follows—I use the word “text” advisedly, because fiction—imagination and literary embellishments—is completely foreign to his factual way of thinking.

Malcolm was born in Shanghai, the son of my first husband, Judge Cornell Franklin. We also had a daughter, Victoria (called Cho-Cho by her Japanese nurse-maid, and eventually by everyone but her father), a few years older than Malcolm. We were living in Hawaii when she was born, and she was still quite a mall child when Judge Franklin decided to move to China and go into the private practice of law in this flourishing international city of the Orient. A few years later Cornell and I agreed on an amicable divorce, and I brought the two children back to Mississippi.

It is not my intention to write a biography, but I feel the necessity of establishing the fact that our divorce did in no way alienate the deep affection of my former husband’s family in Columbus bestowed upon me. Visits by both families between Columbus and Oxford became frequent, mainly, perhaps, on account of the children. The train trip from Oxford to Columbus was particularly irksome—a change, and a long wait in a town called Winona. This is how Judge Franklin’s family met, and got to know, William Faulkner so well, for Bill would often drive us over, and he was very reluctant to forgo their hospitality. Their welcome was all too sincere. “Gran” (Victoria’s and Malcolm’s Franklin-side grandmother) was a charming and admittedly romantic woman, and it was she who approved and applauded my marriage to Bill. She also unhesitatingly upbraided my father for coldly insisting that I’d married a wastrel.

All this brings me to what I’ll wager was the strangest of honeymoons—one even a novelist would hesitate to invent: the groom a bachelor, the bride a divorcee with two children, and all of us having a gay, carefree time in a tumble-down old house on the Gulf of Mexico, with a colored cook loaned to us by my first husband’s mother.

It was late afternoon, the twentieth of June, 1929. My sister, Dorothy, had gone with us to College Hill, a village several miles from Oxford where there was a beautiful old Presbyterian church and an elderly minister whom we all knew, and who gladly performed the simple ceremony. At times I’ve wondered if Dr. Hedleston welcomed us to the church and married us out of pure Godly love and understanding, or was he thumbing his nose at the Pharisaical laws imposed upon divorce by the Episcopal Church? I’ll never know the answer.

Bill and I had talked over our plans for the honey-moon at some length. A friend of his had turned over a big old beach house for our use—unrentable, because at that time Pascagoula wasn’t a fashionable Gulf resort. Victoria was in Columbus with Gan, so Bill insisted that Malcolm be picked up with all our luggage, and dropped in Columbus till we’d gotten settle in our borrowed summer home. How simple it all sounded! I had left a note with Mama about taking Malcolm with us, so I thought that all we had to do was to take Dot home, gather Mac (Malcolm, jly) and the luggage, and take off for Gran’s. She was expecting us.

Mac was still such a baby that I had a nurse for him. Ethel Ruth was a fine playmate, but couldn’t read or write, or even tell the time by a clock with Roman numerals. So when Bill steered the car into our drive way, we found the child dirty, grass-stained and generally unkempt. Bill laughed, thrust Malcolm in the car, stowed our many bags, said good-bye to Dot and headed east toward Columbus.

By then it was late afternoon. We drove as far as Tupelo, and got rooms in the only hotel. I bathed Mac and gave him supper while Bill telephoned Gan that it would be impossible to travel further that night—to expect us for dinner the next day.

Tammy, Tell Me True

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

According to film scholar Melanie Addington, “Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust. Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says.

Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves American film a notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

Pinky was the first big studio picture to troop into race issues. The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas, a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing. The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948), an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America, and its heroine. Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described the film adaptation, Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner’s three “Tammy” novels provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66).

Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song has music by Jay Livingston and lyrics by Ray Evans. Reynolds herself described it as a ‘sweet, simple ballad.'”

The song went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. “At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says.

“Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters.”

“The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder.

Engel on Welty

Jackson native Lehman Engel (1910-82) was a composer and conductor of Broadway musicals, television and film. Engel worked as musical director for the St. Louis Municipal Opera for a number of years before moving to New York to conduct on Broadway. He won 6 Tony Awards, and was nominated for 4 more. Among other works, Engel wrote The American Musical Theatre: A Consideration, the first book to discuss in detail the writing of a Broadway musical, the elements that went into it, and the art of adapting plays into musicals. In his autobiography, This Bright Day, Engel provides an endearing profile of his friendship with Eudora Welty.

It’s strange how people in a small town know each other, speak in passing and not really know one another at all. Although I had met Eudora Welty in Jackson before either of us went away to school, it was not until several years later in New York, when a group of Jacksonians were there each simultaneously pursuing various schoolings, that we had first real contacts. Eudora was at Columbia along with Dolly Wells and Frank Lyell, who had first introduced me to Eudora in the Livingstone Park Lake. I was at Julliard. We changed to meet here and there. I think it was at Norma and Herschell Brickell’s (also from Jackson) where all of us, including Nash Burger, whose father used to play cards with my father, often went.

Each summer all of us went home to swelter, and there the threads grew stronger. There were about five such summers before I began staying on in New York, with work to occupy and to pay me. But at home, Frank, Eudora, Hubert Creekmore, and I used to meet at Eudora’s, and we formed the Night-Blooming Cereus Club, the total membership of which sat up to see the glorious white flower with the yellow feathery center bloom. The morning after, it looked like a swan with a broken neck. Those summers are jumbled together in my memory. During on of them Eudora did some letter-writing for me. Perhaps it was at another time that she took many snapshots. Several of them are among the best any photographer ever took of me. I have one of Eudora, we really invented “camp”, sitting in a tree, a Spanish shawl around her shoulders and on her face an uncharacteristic expression of world-be disdain.

With the passing of time, many things happened to us separately, and we seized every opportunity to communicate and to be together. On my visits to see my family perhaps twice a year—and more often in my parents’ failing days—Eudora was, as she is today, always available whenever it is possible for me to get away from family and family friends. To insure our being together to talk without interruption, she usually picks me up in her car—never a fancy one—and takes me for a ride just anywhere away from everybody else. At her house or mine while my mother was still alive, or at any of my cousins’, Eudora always enjoyed her bourbon and I my scotch.

She has endured a great deal. Her father died many years ago, but her mother lingered in poor health for some years. When finally it became necessary for Eudora to put her in a nursing home in Yazoo City, more than an hour’s drive from Jackson, Eudora drove to see her nearly every day. During those days she developed the habit of starting her work at 5 a.m. so tht she could spend several hours of writing without interruption. She still retains that habit. Very shortly before her mother died, Eudora’s two brothers—both married and each living in his own house—died within days of each other. I have seldom heard her refer to any of this, and what suffering she experienced she kept as her very own.

She is selfless, simple, timid, unworldly, and dedicated to her work. She has had every possible honor and success heaped on her, but nothing has ever changed her lifestyle or her nature. She lives in Jackson—the only place where she feels comfortable—travels when it is necessary only on trains (if possible), and speaks so quietly as to be often in audible. She lives in her parents’ house, which is very nice and devoid of any fanciness. It has two stories made of dark-red-to-purple bricks, and Eudora lives as she prefers—alone. The front yard has large pine trees and the house is surrounded by japonicas (camellias) of all kinds and colors. Behind the house there is a lovely garden containing more camellias and gardenias. The garden is no longer as well manicured as it once was, but I imagine Eudora prefers it that way. Now devoid of family responsibilities, she works consistently and hard. As she prefers never to discuss her work-in-progress, I seldom ask her what she is doing.

If I have given any notion that, like Emily Dickinson, Eudora is a recluse, let me assure you that she is not. She has many old friends, all of whom respect her privacy, and everyone in Jackson is deeply proud of her distinguished achievements.

LEFT: I snapped this picture of Eudora Welty with her camera. Frank Lyell was the Señor; Eudora, the unwitting inventor of camp, was herself above it all. RIGHT: Taken on a summer vacation in Jackson by Eudora Welty. I was about twenty.

Faulkner’s Marble Faun

According to Fred Smith, appraiser for Mississippi State University’s archives and former proprietor of Choctaw Books in Jackson, “When it comes to the ‘Holy Grail’ of Mississippi book collecting, Faulkner’s The Marble Faun is it.”

“For one thing, he’s the most important literary figure this state has ever produced, and this book of poems is his first work,” Smith explained. “Faulkner thought he wanted to be a poet, and Phil Stone had it printed or helped him to get it printed. Stone bought many of the unsold copies and stored them in the attic at his home in Oxford, but they were destroyed when the house burned. I’ve only had one copy in my 31 years in business, and it wasn’t in good shape; the spine was really fragile, and the binding had come off. Whatever the print run was, and I’m sure it wasn’t big, a lot of the original copies didn’t survive.”

“Signed copies are worth tens of thousands of dollars,” Smith said. “The absolute best copy came up for sale at Christie’s, a copy he had inscribed to his mother and father. Ole Miss has a couple of copies, and someone donated one to Mississippi College a few years ago. But that book is one thing that I’ve kept searching for all these years. I did buy one from a lady in Oxford some twenty years ago, but because of its poor condition it wasn’t worth a lot then. I think I sold it for $750, but if I had one to resell now, it would bring ten times that much, probably up to ten thousand, because there just aren’t any around.”

The Christie’s first edition of Faulkner’s The Marble Faun (Four Seas Press: Boston, 1924) sold for $95,600 in October, 2002. In the lot description, Christie’s adds:

“Four Seas agreed to issue Faulkner’s collection of poems in 1923, provided he pay for the manufacturing costs (their standard arrangement). They offered him a royalty arrangement, but Faulkner declined to proceed, at the time not having enough money to carry the costs. Within six months, though, he’d received the encouragement and financial support of Phil Stone and the twenty-seven year old Faulkner contracted for the printing of 500 copies of The Marble Faun. The book sold poorly and quickly was remaindered. No records survive detailing the number of copies Four Seas actually sold prior to disposing the stock on the remainder market, but an early estimate suggested 100 copies. William Boozer, in William Faulkner’s First Book: The Marble Faun (Memphis, 1975), specifically located 56 copies. Boozer considered the existence of other floating copies for a total of near 70, and has since found more, but his total is still short of the 100 copies initially assumed.”

Another Rejection

Dear Mr. Yancy,

Thank you for submitting your work, The Existential Tomato, to the University Press of Missitucky.

Your book received a great deal of consideration. Our assistant senior editors, Mr. Pastel and Ms. Brawn, engaged in a lively debate on whether a vegetable can be considered “existential” with Mr. Pastel contending that it’s not the vegetable itself that is existential but rather the perception of the vegetable that is of an existential nature whereupon Ms. Brawn threatened to tear the rug off his head and shove it up his ass.

Ms. Ergot, who manages most of our culinary titles, said that while The Existential Tomato does have many farm-to-table aspects, the recipes for the most part seem to be more in the grandmère à petit enfant vein, which while a valid culinary movement, is little known and even less understood in this country.

Our graphics editor, Mr. Waters, was quite enthusiastic, and prepared no less than nine prospective covers, none of which depicted anything even remotely resembling a tomato. The copy editor, Mr. Yawn, said that your writing, while crisp, clean, and incisive, not only had too many semi-colons and long dashes, but was also peppered with such unfamiliar words as “macerate”.

While lucid, amusing, and informative of the state of mankind in the early 21st century, The Existential Tomato does not meet our criteria at the time.

Fuck off.

Sincerely,

Rupta Ganesh
Graduate Editorial Assistant

A Failed Southern Lady at Ole Miss

In this excerpt from her (somewhat fictionalized) Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985), self-confessed misanthrope Florence King—celebrated by conservatives and liberals alike for her arsenical wit—renders a breezy, catty account of her brief career as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in 1958.

King wrote Confessions in graduate school, which she never finished after embarking on a career as a writing putative first-person stories for pulp magazines like Uncensored Confessions. (Her first: “My God! I’m Too Passionate for My Own Good!”) Many might find her impressions of Ole Miss in the late ‘50s of interest, and fans will like the way King lays the overwhelmingly Southern-ness of Oxford on with a trowel. This selection also describes the beginnings of her affair with a young woman who was killed in a car accident shortly afterwards.

My South was a region of narrow red brick Federalist houses and vast rolling acres of cobblestones. I had never seen naked children playing with a dead snake, nor a four-year-old standing up to nurse at the breast of a mother seated on a porch, but these riveting sights were mine from the window of the Memphis-Oxford bus.

Oxford itself was a pretty town with a courthouse on the square and a Confederate statue in front of it. It was almost dark when the bus pulled into the depot. As I got off, a taxi driver spotted me for a student and jumped forward, tipping his cap.

“Carry you up to campus, l’il lady?”

His idiom for “drive” was another first; for a moment I visualized myself arriving in a swoon in his skinny arms. He loaded my luggage and I gave him the name of the dorm the dean had assigned me to.

“That’s Miz Arvella’s dorm,” he said, referring to the housemother the dean had mentioned. “A fine woman.”

Proctors had to arrive two days earlier than the other students, so the campus was empty and unlighted when he pulled up before a dimly outlined rectangular house set in a copse of dark overhanging trees. In the tradition of Gothic paperback covers, one light burned in the house. The driver shone his headlights on the walk so I could see and I mounted the porch and rang the bell. I heard footsteps and then the door opened.

“Hey, Miz Arvella!” the driver cried happily.

“Hey, Mistuh Reece! How you doin’? How you been? You have a good summuh?” She turned to me. “You must be Flarnz. Are you Flarnz? Are you the proctuh named Flarnz? They said you wuh comin’ tonight. The Dean said to me this mornin’, she said, ‘Flarnz is comin’ tonight.’ Did you get heah awright? How you doin’?”

Everybody started talking at once; the driver answering his questions, I answering mine, and Miz Arvella asking more. It made walking through the door difficult: other people enter houses but Southerners surge in on wings of speech. Miz Arvella was the same age and shape as every other old lady I had ever known, but there was nonetheless something un-Daughterly about her. The word “askew” came to mind. I was used to rigidly glued gray fingerwaves and personalities to match, but Miz Arvella looked as if she had been cut out of her own speech pattern.

I reminded myself that I was getting a free private room out of this. Miz Arvella took me upstairs and showed it to me as the driver followed behind with my bags. It was huge and attractively furnished and sans Granny-my first room-of-one’s own. I paid the driver and he left me alone with the fine woman.

“Come on down aftuh you wash up. We’ll have us some coffee and Ah’ll explain your duties,” she said, and waddled out.

I washed up and looked out the window but could see nothing except an amber patch made by my own light; beyond it lay the wet black velvet of a Southern night. It was as still as death, yet there was something pervasively alive about it, a sense of things unseen moving among the trees on soundless wings. No wonder so many of the early settlers had gone mad. (“One Nathaniel Upton was floggèd for shewing himself in publick unclothed.”)

I went downstairs to join Miz Arvella. She led me to a little room with a wall board that contained buzzers and corresponding room numbers. Next to the board was the proctor’s desk and a table containing the sign-out book. According to the dean’s letter, I was to alternate odd and even nights with Miz Arvella, each of us having every other weekend off. There was very little to do and I could study at the desk once the girls were out on their dates. I had to check them in, keep track of late records and grace periods, chase any boys out of the lounge when the witching hour struck, and lock the doors.

As a woman of legal age, I had no curfew. I could go out after I locked the magnolia blossoms in, and stay out all night if I wished. My job entitled me to a key to the dorm, which Miz Arvella issued me now.

Next she explained the buzzer system. This is what she said:

“When a guhl has a phone call, you know what Ah mean, when the telephone rings, when somebody is callin’ huh up. When a guhl has a phone call, you press huh bell once. When she has a calluh, when a boy comes in to get huh, you know what Ah’m tryin’ to say, when they’ve got a date that night and he picks huh up, when he comes in and asks for huh in puhson ‘stead of callin’ on the phone, you unnerstand what Ah mean? When she has a calluh, then you press huh bell twice. That way, she knows whethuh she’s got a phone call or a calluh. ‘Cause see, if she has a calluh and you press huh bell once ‘stead of twice, she’ll think it’s a call ‘stead of a calluh. She’d come downstairs in huh dressin’ gown with huh hair up in cullahs, and there stands huh calluh, just standin’ there right in front of huh just as big as life. She’d just die of embarrassment, you know what Ah mean, she’d just fall down dead is what Ah’m sayin’, she’d just perish!”

She invited me to dinner in her apartment but I pleaded travel fatigue and escaped to my room. I poured myself a drink from Herb’s Prohibition flask, which he had filled with Scotch and given me for a going-away present. I heard the phone ring in Miz Arvella’s bedroom. A call, not a calluh. I put my hair up in cullahs, had another drink-you know what I mean, I poured some more whiskey out of the flask and drank it is what I’m saying—and fell into bed.

I slept twelve hours and awoke to the kind of morning that can turn night people into morning people. The warm sunny air was so fresh and sweet that I actually stuck my head out the window and inhaled. Ole Miss had a bona fide campusy look that my city college had striven for and missed. It was enough to make a graduate student feel like a co-ed at last, instead of the strangely haunted, secret-drinking proctor of Miz Arvella.

No sooner did this thought pass through my mind than I heard a tap at my door.

“Flarnz? You there, Flarnz? Come on down and have breakfast. Miz Zaviola’s heah. She’s one of the othuh housemothuhs and she’s just dyin’ to meet you.”

I was starving to death, so with two of us in extremis there was no reason to try and get out of it. I dressed and went downstairs, sniffing appreciatively at the aroma of Miz Arvella’s home-baked biscuits.

The other housemother looked more like my kind of old lady but she sounded exactly like Miz Arvella. This is what she said over breakfast:

“When Ah heard they wuh lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy, Ah saw the handwritin’ on the wall. Ah said to myself Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall if they let those guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy. Ah said the same thing to one of the mothuhs that called me. She asked me what did Ah think about them lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy and Ah said to huh Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall.”

My stomach was shaking. I was sorry because I had always enjoyed old ladies and I wanted to enjoy these, but I had to escape the echo chamber. As soon as I could politely do so, I excused myself and went for a walk around the campus. It was nearly deserted without the students but I had an imaginary companion. As we strolled through the grove in front of the white-columned Lyceum, Somerset Maugham whispered in my ear: “It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with equal zest.”

Maybe. Probably. But there was something a little too sweeping about Willie’s theory. The most feminine temperament I had ever encountered belonged to Evelyn Cunningham, but though she was a chatterbox, she was not a repeating rifle. No matter how much she talked she always moved forward, usually too fast; her needle never got stuck. Compared to Miz Arvella and Miz Zaviola, Evelyn was taciturn.

I stayed out as long as I could, but with the campus closed and no car to take me into town I was thrown back on the dorm. That meant having my meals with Miz Arvella because I want to emphasize this-she was what the South calls “a good soul.” She would give you half of anything she had to eat and three of everything she had to say.

As long as I had to endure her echolalia, I decided to analyze it. Perhaps she had been the youngest in a large family and had trouble getting people to listen to her. When she told me she was the oldest of seven and had raised her siblings after their mother’s untimely death, I decided that her thrice-told tales sprang from saying “No, no, no” to children while she herself was still a child. When both housemothers told me their late husbands had been farmers, I blamed isolation in the country with laconic men. This did not explain the absence of echolalia in farmwives in other parts of America, especially New England, but by then I was in no condition to pick a fight with myself.

All of my theories collapsed on the first day of school when the dorm was invaded by girls and mothers from every part of Mississippi, representing every social background and sibling rank, who all said everything at least three times.

“Well, lemme tell you, Ah’ve been on the horns of a dilemma evva since we got up this mornin’ to drive Tulaplee up heah from Jaspah City. Ah’ve nevva seen a fuhst day like this one. Ah tole Jimmy Lee while we wuh drivin’ up heah, Ah said Jimmy Lee Ah said, Ah’m on the horns of a dilemma, that’s what Ah tole him. When we got to Clarksdale, Tulaplee remembuhed that she forgot huh opal necklace and we had to tuhn right around and go back home and get it. By the time we got stahted again, Ah was on the horns of a dilemma the likes of which you have nevva seen.”

“Mary Lou’s upstairs just cryin’ huh eyes out ’cause it’s the fuhst time she’s evva been away from home. But Ah tole huh, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, there’s no point cryin’ your eyes out ’cause there comes a time when the Mama bird pushes the babies out of the nest. You know what Ah mean, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, Nature tells the Mama bird to push the babies out of the nest, so you hadn’t ought to cry your eyes out like that, ’cause the time has come for you to leave the nest, that’s what Ah tole huh. But she kept cryin’ huh eyes out, so I went and got huh Daddy and Ah tole him Ah said T.J. Ah said, you make that chile unnerstand that she’s just got to leave the nest. So T.J. talked to huh a long time, a right good while, and finally she dried huh eyes and she said to me, Mama, she said, you’re right. Ah’ve just got to fly.”

The front door burst open, crashed against the wall, and shuddered on its hinges as an embattled mother and daughter surged through the foyer and stormed upstairs. This time it was the daughter doing the talking.

“Ah got sick and tard of listenin’ to all that ole hoorah so Ah tole him Ah said Purvis Lee Thornton Ah said, Ah don’t want to heah another word out of you, so you just hush your mouth right this minute, that’s what Ah tole him. And he said to me he said Jackie Sue he said, Ah know good ‘n’ well you been datin’ Lamar Creighton on the sly, and Ah said now listen heah Ah said, that’s the biggest bunch of hoorah Ah evva heard! Ah said you just take that up the road and dump it, Ah said, ’cause you’re just as full of hoorah as you can be, that’s what Ah tole him.”

Thus vanished my slim hope of blaming it on the menopause. I took four aspirin, helped Miz Arvella get everybody squared away, and then escaped to the allmale world of the History Department to sign up for my classes. I took Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Age of Reason, Historiography and Historical Research, and Thesis I. After I registered, I had an interview with my thesis advisor.

“I see from your transcripts that you’ve had six years of French,” he said. “I assume you’re planning a topic from French history, since you can do the research in the original. How about Syndicalism?”

Ralph had warned me about professor-generated topics. (“You can bet he’s writing a book on it and wants a free research assistant.”)

“Labor movements don’t interest me,” I replied, “and besides, it’s too recent. I like the distant past.”

Having blurted these sentiments to the only liberal at Ole Miss, I was smoothly but quickly transferred to another advisor, but he too pounced on the French, albeit with much more chronological empathy.

“How about Pippin the Short?”

“I’ll think about it,” I lied.

I wanted to write on the historical Bérénice, but I hesitated to say so for two reasons. First, very little was known about her and I was afraid there would not be enough to make a whole thesis. Second, I did not want to suggest a female topic after two men had suggested meaty male topics. I knew what History Departments thought of “hen scholars poring over Godey’s Lady’s Book.” I decided to see if I could solve both of these problems by fleshing out Bérénice with Titus and her father and grandfather, Herod Agrippa and Herod the Great. The latter’s policy on watery moles was bound to be an inspiration.

Next I went to the library to get my carrel assignment. The study nooks for graduate students, smaller versions of Herb’s first alcove at Park Road, were on the top floor of the library. The room was blessedly quiet and deserted. My carrel was next to a half-moon partitioned window that faced east and got the cool morning light. The desk was a Formica slab bolted to the wall, which made me think of the stationary desks bolted to the floor in high school. I gazed around the partitioned little space and smiled. It seemed more like my first private room than the one I had in the dorm. I ran my hand along the bookshelf above the desk. I was going to like studying here.

I heard a chair scrape and turned around. A woman stood in one of the cubicles in the back of the room with her arm draped over the top of her partition. The sleeve of her white shirtwaist was rolled up to the elbow in a businesslike way but the arm was languidly, almost bonelessly Southern. Just then she moved, seeming to push herself off the partition with a conscious effort, and started up the aisle toward me. She looked slender even though she wore a gathered skirt, so the body under it must have been thin. Her hair was dark and wavy and twisted carelessly up on the crown of her head in a chignon from which a few strands escaped and straggled down. She was taller than I, and as she came closer I saw that she was older. She looked about twenty-seven.

It seemed to take her forever to get from her carrel to mine. Southerner she undoubtedly was but a repeating rifle, never. Her smile was slow and lazy, too, but her undernourished air did not extend to her teeth. They were strong, perfectly aligned, and as white as her cotton blouse.

“Hey,” she said.

It meant “Hi.” Her eyes were dark grayish-green with golden flecks. I wondered what she put down when she filled out an application. She wore no makeup at all.

“Saw you get in a cab last night. I was going to carry you up to campus but you got away.”

I was still not used to “carry” for “drive” but her voice was as soft as velvet. I introduced myself and she responded with something that sounded like “breast.”

“Beg pardon?”

She gave a resigned smile as though she had been through this many times before.

“B-R-E-S. Rhymes with dress. My mother’s maiden name was Le Brès. Huguenot. We’re from the Gulf.”

“Are you a graduate student?” I asked.

“Graduate assistant. Classics. I got my master’s last year. I’m doing independent reading this year.”

“You mean Latin and Greek?” She nodded. “But Latin’s my specialty.”

It explained her oddly un-Southern, elliptical way of speaking. The military precision of Latin would necessarily eliminate the Mississippi daisy chain. I was terrifically impressed. As I tried to think of something ungulpy to say, she looked at her watch.

“Want to go get some coffee?” The jukebox was playing “Tom Dooley” when we entered the snack bar. It would continue to play all that year and become the song I afterwards associated with her, incongruous as it and she were. Several people gave her a quick glance and then looked speculatively at me. She continued on through the main part of the shop and led me to a smaller annex around a corner. I put my books down beside hers on the table she chose and we went to get our coffee.

“That’s our section,” she said, jerking her head back toward the annex. “It’s known as the Poet’s Corner. The campus cuties and the meatheads always sit in the main section. It’s called segregation,” she added with light irony.

I decided to test her. “I call campus cuties malkins.”

She knew what it meant. “Yes, they are that, but campus cutie is a proper noun around here. Capitalized. An official title. An award.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. The student newspaper picks a Campus Cutie of the Week. Black.”

“What?” “No, I mean the coffee.”

We returned to the table and I told her about my idea for a thesis on Bérénice. Once again she picked up the intellectual ball and ran with it-much farther than I could.

“Hmm. Not much to go on. Tacitus mainly. ‘Titus reginam Berenicem, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur, statim ab Urbe dimisit invitus invitam,’” she quoted rapidly. Something that was pure joy went through me. “There’s a little more in Deo Cassius,” she continued. “And the New Testament. Saint Paul met her. Bet that was an interesting occasion.”

Two co-eds at a table at the end of the main section were peering around the bend and staring at us. When I looked at them, one smirked and jabbed the other with troopers looking for cars with low trunks. I heard about the bootlegger who ran “Johnny’s Grocery” who became so undone by hypocrisy that he eventually came to believe he really was a grocer and started attending meetings of the Retail Food Merchants Association.

The strangest story they told me was about the local option situation over in the next county. Anyone with a powerful thirst could drive thirty miles to Batesville where there was a tavern that sold perfectly legal malt liquor. Not beer, malt liquor.

“Why malt liquor?” I asked.

Nobody knew. “That’s just the way it is,” Lucius said with a shrug.

It was an example of those recumbent QED’s that so infuriate Northern liberals. Another is: “It’s always been that way.”

Suddenly I found myself dying for a drink. I was not much of a drinker at this time, and it was only mid-afternoon, but going to live in Mississippi was like being transported back to the 1920s: I wanted it because it was against the law to have it. The others evidently felt the same way; all had a parched, panting look. I was about to suggest a drive to Batesville when Augustus spoke up.

“Hey, I’ve got a jug of Thunderbird wine in my room. How about if we take it down to Bres’s apartment and drink it?”

I had never drunk Thunderbird but like all city people, I was familiar with the vintage, having seen empty bottles bearing the label scattered in alleys. Bres agreed to the suggestion and we left the coffeeshop.

First, we had to stop by Augustus’s dorm and stand watch while he brought out the jug in his laundry bag, surrounded, for authenticity’s sake, by a bundle of his underwear. I expected to hear sirens closing in on us. It was a heartrending example of the sanctity of states’ rights.

The six of us walked down to the well-named Faculty Shacks, tiny frame houses like beach cottages whose peeling exteriors evoked the old saying, “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Each little house was a separate apartment with its own driveway; Bres’s contained a 1954 Ford with Pearl River County tags. She opened the door of the house and we trooped in.

The uncarpeted living room was like an oven. While she was in the kitchen getting ice, I looked around. The furniture consisted of two mattress-on-a-door couches facing each other and separated by a cable spool coffee table; the lamps had been made out of green wine jugs weighted with pebbles, and the bookcases from planks of lumber and cinder blocks. All in all, bohemian done to a turn.

She was fairly neat but not shockingly so; her slut’s wool was coming along nicely and her window ledges contained that undisturbed layer of aristocracy to which I was accustomed. There were books everywhere, in and out of the bookcases, and an enormous collection of grant literature: prospecti and brochures on Fulbright-this and Guggenheim-that. Lucius noted my interest in them.

“If you want to know how to live on grants forever, ask ole Bres. Freighters to Europe, too. She’s got the schedules memorized.”

It was exactly what I did want to know. I imagined the two of us living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and sharing a Left Bank garret. It was an easy dream to realize in the fifties; grant money fell like rain and Arthur Frommer was the Vagabond King.

Bres brought in the ice and we started drinking the awful wine. I could barely swallow it but everyone else lapped it up. Still thinking about the Southern-ness of classical studies, I ventured my opinion and asked the others what they thought.

Bres shook her head. “That was true once but today’s Mississippians wouldn’t buy it. One way or another, Latin makes them mad.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Three reasons.” She shot a long index finger out of the relaxed curve of her fist. “Primo, it’s Catholic, so the Baptists hate it. Secundo, it’s the symbol of scholarship, so the anti-intellectuals hate it. Tertio, the campus cuties hate it because it has a reputation for being hard to learn, and that makes it unfeminine.”

She turned to me with the barest inquisitive glance. I had difficulty swallowing, but this time it had nothing to do with the wine.

“Actually, they’re right for once,” she went on. “It is unfeminine. It’s ideal for writing military reports, which is what Caesar’s Gallic War is. The g’s and c’s are hard. The Church has ruined the real Roman pronunciation, you know?-and then there’s that marvelous brevity. Southern women like to put things in, but Latin takes things out. Like “Where is the mirror?’ Ubi speculum est? You don’t need ‘the.”

Once again she looked at me. Her glance was wry at first, but as I held it her eyes widened with unmistakable meaning. Suddenly she put down her wineglass and raised graceful arms to her hair and began to reorder it in that half-abstracted, half-automatic way of women who wear their hair up, swiping at the nape of her neck to catch loose strands and tucking them into the chignon at the crown. As I continued to watch her, she removed a bobby pin and opened it with her teeth. There is no gesture more womanly, yet it has all the carelessness of a little girl who loses her sweaters and breaks her Thermos jars. Something melted inside of me, a hard tight ball in whose center lay a tenderness I had never acknowledged or expressed. I wanted to hug her, to pull her into my lap and rock her. When she smiled shyly up at me from under the bow of her bent arms, it was all I could do not to cry.

The ghastly wine was nearly gone. I had drunk only one glass but my tongue tasted like a Croatian army sock. I shuddered as the others drained their glasses in one gulp and smacked their lips appreciatively; evidently Mississippians would drink anything. Sorella suggested that we turn our afternoon into a night of serious drinking, and the Grope started discussing a gas station near Water Valley where, it was rumored, you could buy a pint of applejack. Not whiskey, applejack; not gin, applejack. It being impossible to telephone ahead and ask point blank if the gas station sold illegal hooch, they were willing to drive all the way down to Water Valley on the strength of this uncertain gossip.

Reluctantly, I looked at my watch. “I’m on the desk tonight.”

“We’ll make a hooch run when Florence can go with us,” Bres ruled, and the argument subsided at once.

We all went to the cafeteria instead. I should have been hungry but I could barely finish a hamburger. I had fallen in love at last.

Ars Voces: Howard Bahr–A Precise Lyricism

When I was a little kid, I’d write stories and my mother would type them up on her Royal Standard typewriter. Writing those stories, I never supposed I’d become serious. I used to use a manual typewriter, my own 1953 Royal standard, a beautiful machine that I loved dearly. Then I got a computer, and I use that now. The thing about the computer is that it makes it so easy to revise. Stepping off into the blank page is scary, and it’s much easier to go back and revise what you’ve already written than to make up something new, so I have to watch myself with that. I only work at night; drink beer, smoke my pipe and try to write a couple of pages. It’s kind of a ritual.

When I first became really interested in writing, when I was working on the railroad, my friend Frank Smith introduced me to William Faulkner.  I’d heard of Faulkner, but I had never read him. Frank and I were talking about writing, thinking, sort of coming out of ourselves and finding out things. When he gave me some Faulkner books to read, I became just totally involved in Faulkner’s world. It was a world I thought I would have loved to have lived in; the 1890s, the turn of the century, the South of the 1920s. I was fascinated by his style, so I began to unconsciously imitate it. If I had any of my early writings, you would see that I was a very poor copier of William Faulkner, but an imitator nevertheless. Parenthetically, Shelby Foote did the same thing, you read Foote’s early novels and they are a poor imitation of Faulkner’s style. Then I read Joseph Conrad, and I began to imitate him, his cadences, then I read Scott Fitzgerald and I tried to imitate his beautiful, musical lines. Every person I read, I would imitate. Many years later, when I read Lonesome Dove, that book put echoes in my head. Out of all that came my own style.

That’s how I learned to write, by reading other writers, imitating and finding my own voice, and that’s what I recommend for any writer, to not be afraid to imitate a number of writers, because eventually you’ll find your own style. That’s what Faulkner himself did; he imitated A.E. Housman, a number of stylists until he came up with his own. By the time I came to Rowan Oak as a caretaker, I was sick and tired of William Faulkner, I was sick of his baroque sentences, he had begun to annoy me with his coy, almost willful obscurity, so I lost interest in his writing for that reason. Oddly enough, the presence of William Faulkner at Rowan Oak was very small. The boys who worked with me there I think would agree. We all wrote stories and wrote things in the house, but there was no inspiration or magical breath that came down the stairs. It was like writing in a hotel room. Although we talked about him, kept the house as he and his family had, the house really had a life of its own. To us, it was always the house that was more alive to us than Faulkner. Wherever Mr. Faulkner’s ghost is, it is at rest.

I never go to a lecture unless I’m giving it. I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but there’s also some truth in it, too. I go to a writers’ conference to speak or read, and I look out over the auditorium and they’ve all got their pads and their pencils are poised to write down The Secret as if there must be some secret to this. They would be better off spending that time reading other writers and writing for themselves. Edgar Allen Poe never went to a writers’ conference; William Faulkner never attended classes at Bread Loaf. The great writers learn to write by reading and imitating and by working their asses off day and night. You’ve always got to be working on something, whether it’s going to amount to anything or not. You can ask any writer if he is working on anything now, and he will say yes. He may be staring at the blank page, but he’s still working.

Don’t preach. You want to write a story. Faulkner said, and I think he’s quite right, that a writer should not have an agenda, that he should not preach; his business is to tell the story of the human heart, to tell it well in all of its lights and shadows, and out of that telling, if you do it true enough and honest enough, if you don’t make fun of your characters and create a real world that your reader can move around in, if you do all that and tell the story, then the meaning, the preaching, whatever you’re trying to say will come out. The Black Flower is not about North versus South; it’s not about the Yankees and the Rebels; it’s about how horrible and unspeakable war is. That’s what it preaches about, not through the voice of the author but through the actions and reactions of the characters and the things they see in the world around them. The reader gets the message without being button-holed. What is wrong with preaching is that you begin to move away from the story, away from the work, and into the writer. And the writer doesn’t matter. If the writer has a message, it needs to come out in the work.

I think that my course has run as a writer. I don’t think that I’ll be publishing any more books. I think that the time has come for me to be a teacher of writing. But having said that, I still write all the time, I’m still paying attention. The literary world is a landscape that I don’t recognize any more, I don’t understand it; I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think anyone would be interested in publishing anything else I write, but if I ever finish something, I’ll send it in, see what happens.

A Preacher’s Kid from Alligator

Jack’s Skillet: Plain Talk and Some Recipes from a Guy in the Kitchen (Algonquin, 1997), is by Jack Butler, who isn’t just some guy, but a poet and novelist. He was born in Alligator, Mississippi, to a son of Delta gentry who sought the cloth. He attended high school in Clinton, Mississippi, was ordained in Missouri, and earned an MFA from UA (Fayetteville)  in 1979.

Butler’s first novel, Jujitsu for Christ (August House, 1986), told the story of a young man who opens a martial arts school in Jackson, Mississippi. His third book, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock (Knopf, 1993), employs collage, newspaper excerpts, cartoon reprints, and an omniscient narrator who claims to be either the Holy Ghost or a deceased dog. The novel received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote a food column for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (His 1993 short story collection, Hawk Gumbo, is not a cookbook, but it’s good stuff!).

In Jack’s Skillet, Butler writes about food as pleasure, as ritual, as communication, “satisfaction, the giving and receiving of sustenance and delight.”

“I’m a cook, and I can’t help thinking about food. I’m a novelist, and I can’t help telling stories, I’m a poet, and I can’t help singing out from time to time, As a result, you should think of this book as a story, a story with occasional bursts of paean and dithyramb. The story is the story of our lives with food. I say our.”

“Stories have characters, and this one is no exception. I can’t write about food without writing about people. Stories also have settings and backgrounds. I spent roughly the first twenty years of my life in Mississippi, mostly in the cotton-growing Delta. Then I spent twenty-five or so in Arkansas. You are what you eat, and all my life I’ve eaten Southern. But sort of nouvelle Southern, with pluralistic influences. Semi-enlightened good old boy, you might say.”

“I can’t imagine writing about food and not at some point talking about the absolute best breakfast on earth, which is not, I’m sorry to say, garlic-and-cheese grits, or even pork chops, scrambled eggs, and hot biscuits with strawberry preserves, but novy mit a schmeer-a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese and layered with capers, thin slices of smoked Nova Scotia salmon, tomato, and onion.”

Jack’s Skillet includes such pearls as “Tomato Gravy and Biscuits,” “Mosey Froghead’s Barbecue Sauce,” “A Southerner’s First Meal in Heaven,” “A Grace for the Old Man,” and this nugget:

How to Get Rid of Beer

I’m not a heavy-duty beer drinker. I like stout, and I like Alaskan amber. Which, incidentally, as I found out on my last trip to Alaska, is what they now call the beer formerly known as Chinook. I spent half a week in Fairbanks asking after Chinook and not finding it before anybody bothered to straighten me out. Seems somebody decided that reminding the thirsty customer of the smell of dead fish just at the point of purchase wasn’t all that grand a marketing strategy. Maybe not. The beer’s just as good, either way.

I do like a snappingly cold brewski or two after a long hike or a hot game in the summertime, but I will never park in front of the tube and start in on a sixpack.

Nevertheless, we always seem to have extra beer around the house, lots of extra beer. Usually several different brands. Lately it’s been Pearl Light and Miller Ice Draft. I can, by the way, recommend Pearl Light as an excellent swimming-pool beer for those 100° Arkansas or Carolina or even Connecticut July days. Only seventy calories a can, and it tastes pretty good. I mean really, I’m not kidding, it tastes pretty good. For American beer.

Anyway, what happens is that we have a party or have some people over, so we go out and buy some beer, and then the people bring their own beer, and then everybody winds up drinking white wine or gets into my Wild Turkey while I’m not looking.

So then we have a refrigerator full of beer. It stays full for months and months while I try to figure out ways to get rid of it. And that’s our situation right now.

I can manage a can or two a month myself, if I decide to have boilermakers for a change, but that’s about all, especially during the winter. Clearly, then, I am in need of alternatives. Lately I’ve been experimenting with beer batter. I like batter-fried things. The greasier the better. Grease is good for you, after all. _ And it’s fun to play around with different sorts of batter. I grew up on cornmeal batter and egg batter, though mostly when I do steak fingers or catfish or fried chicken nowadays, as I’ve told you, I just salt, pepper, flour, and fry.

Beer batter is completely different.

The recipe I use is simplicity itself. (I want to caution you that there’s nothing official about this recipe. This is not, repeat not, authentic beer batter.) I put white flour in a bowl, the amount depending on how much batter I think I’m going to need. I sprinkle in some salt according to how salty I think I’m going to want the batter to taste. I cut in some butter or margarine in the ratio of roughly a tablespoon to a cup of flour. I add cold beer, stirring until I have a nice thick batter-liquid, but dense and clinging. I drink the rest of the beer.

Beer batter comes out a lot like tempura, which means it isn’t suitable for just anything. I’ve tried it out on all sorts of things recently, even catfish and chicken livers. On the whole, I don’t think I’d recommend it for most meats, though the chicken livers were just fine hot from the skillet. Jayme liked the catfish, but I had some reservations. My thought is that it would work better for extremely firm-fleshed seafoods, like shrimp and, hm, ah, shrimp.

And vegetables. Beer batter is really great for those deep-fried happy-hour veggie-type gnoshes. It works great for mushrooms, which are almost impossible to get any other sort of batter to stick to. It would, I am sure, if you can bear the concept, work great for nuggets of cauliflower or broccoli, or for dill pickles. It is supreme for onion rings, which I dearly love, and of which good ones are mighty hard to get.

What I do is flour my fryees- the rings, the mushrooms, whatever. Just shake them in a bag with flour, dip them in the batter, drop them in hot oil in a deep fryer, get them golden brown all over, and drain them (beer batter holds a lot of oil).

Then you can sit down with your crunchy munchies and tune in to see what the score of the game is, and whether Mike Piazza has hit any more home runs.

And what the hey, maybe even have a cold beer with your meal. It would be appropriate, and you’d be getting rid of two of the cotton-picking things in one evening.

Beer-Batter Onion Rings

1 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, cut into 14″-thick rings
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
6 to 8 ounces beer
Cooking oil for deep-frying

Mix flour and salt. Put flour mixture into a paper bag. Throw in onion rings and shake, then set aside. They should be only lightly coated. Transfer flour to a mixing bowl and cut in butter. Add beer gradually, stirring until batter thickens. Heat cooking oil in a deep fryer (a high-walled skillet will do). The oil is hot enough for frying when water dripped onto the oil pops and sizzles. Coat onion rings thoroughly with batter and drop into oil. Fry until golden brown all over, then remove to paper and drain. This batter will also serve as a fine tempura-style batter for a wide range of vegetables.

A Dog Named Rex

Consider Gus Levy:

“. . . a nice guy. He was also a regular fellow. He had friends among promoters and trainers and coaches and managers across the country. At any arena or stadium or track Gus Levy could count on knowing at least one person connected with the place. He knew owners and ticket sellers and players. He even got a Christmas card every year from a peanut vendor who worked the parking lot across from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He was very well liked. (A Confederacy of Dunces, p. 202)

Levy was also the owner of Levy Pants, of late the workplace of Our Hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, where he had made himself at home among the filing cabinets, posting a a hand-lettered sign saying “Department of Research and Reference: I. J. Reilly” (97). Gus Levy met Ignatius after a fracas in the office left Ignatius and his co-worker, Miss Trixie in a heap on the floor. Intent on making a positive impression, Ignatius had announced to Levy that he has taken an interest in his business and will help him with innovations. But Ignatius quite to the contrary, responds to a letter from a client, Abelman’s Dry Goods, with extensive insults and addresses Abelman as “Mongoloid, Esq.” (105). Abelman, obviously not to be intimidated, responds with a threat of legal action.

After discovering his company is on the brink of bankruptcy because of the bungling machinations of a cloistered, anachronistic crusader, Gus Levy, after convoluted campaign, finally reaches the home of his antagonist on Constantinople Street in a declining neighborhood among

(31) a block of houses built in the 1880s and 90s, wooden Gothic and Gilded Age relics that dripped carving and scrollwork, Boss Tweed suburban stereotypes separated by alleys so narrow that a yardstick could almost bridge them and fenced in by iron pikes and low walls of crumbling brick. The larger houses had become impromptu apartment buildings, their porches converted into additional rooms. In some of the front yards there were aluminum carports, and bright aluminum awnings had been installed on one or two of the buildings. It was a neighborhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly—and with very limited funds.

 The address . . . was the tiniest structure on the block, aside from the carports, a Lilliput of the eighties. A frozen banana tree, brown and stricken, languished against the front of the porch, the tree preparing to collapse as the iron fence had done long ago. Near the dead tree there was a slight mound of earth and a leaning Celtic cross cut from plywood.

(307) Mr. Levy climbed the steps and read the “Peace at Any Price” sign tacked to one of the porch posts and the “Peace to Men of Good Will” sign tacked to the front of the house. This was the place all right. Inside a telephone was ringing.

 “They not home!” a woman screamed from behind a shutter next door. “They telephone’s been ringing all morning.”

 The front shutters of the adjoining house opened and a harried

 (308) looking woman came out on the porch and rested her red elbows on her porch rail.

 “Do you know where Mr. Reilly is?” Mr. Levy asked her.

 “All I know is he’s all over this morning’s paper. Where he oughta be is in a asylum. My nerves is shot to hell. When I moved next door to them people, I was signing my death warrant.”

 “Does he live here alone? A woman answered the phone once when I called.”

 “‘That musta been his momma. Her nerves is shot, too. She musta went to get him out the hospital or wherever they got him.”

 “Do you know Mr. Reilly well?”

 “Ever since he was a kid. His momma was sure proud of him. All the sisters at school loved him he was so precious. Look how he ended up, laying in a gutter. Well, they better start thinking about moving off my block. I can’t take it no more. They’ll really be arguing now.”

 “Let me ask you something. You know Mr. Reilly well. Do you think he’s very irresponsible or maybe even dangerous?”

 “What you want with him?” Miss Annie’s bleary eyes narrowed. “He’s in some other kinda trouble?”

 “I’m Gus Levy. He used to work for me.”

 “Yeah? You don’t say. That crazy Idnatius was sure proud of that job he had at that place. I useta hear him telling his momma how he was really making good. Yeah, he made good. A few weeks and he was fired. Well, if he worked for you, you really know him good.”

 Had that poor Reilly kook really been proud of Levy Pants? He had always said that he was. That was one good sign of his insanity.

 “Tell me. Hasn’t he been in trouble with the police. Doesn’t he have some kind of police record?”

 “His momma had a policeman coming around her. A regular undercover agent. But not that Idnatius. For one thing his momma likes her little nip. I don’t see her drunk much lately, but for a while there she was really going good. One day I look out in the backyard and she had herself all tangled up in a wet sheet hanging off the line. Mister, it’s already took ten years off my life living next to them people. Noise! Banjos and trumpets and screaming and hollering and the TV. Them Reillys oughta go move out in the country somewheres on a farm. Every day I gotta take six, seven aspirin.” Miss Annie reached inside the neckline of her housedress to find some strap that had slipped from (309) her shoulder. “Lemme tell you something. I gotta be fair. That Idnatius was okay until that big dog of his died. He had this big dog useta bark right under my window. That’s when my nerves first started to go.

Then the dog dies. Well, I think, now maybe I’ll get me some peace and quiet. But no. Idnatius is got the dog laid out in his momma’s front parlor with some flowers stuck in its paw. That’s when him and his momma first started all that fighting. To tell you the truth, I think that’s when she started drinking. So Idnatius goes over to the priest and ax him to come say something over the dog. Idnatius was planning on some kinda funeral. You know? The priest says no, of course, and I think that’s when Idnatius left the Church. So big Idnatius puts on his own funeral. A big fat high school boy oughta know better. You see that cross?”

Mr. Levy looked hopelessly at the rotting Celtic cross in the frontyard. “That where it all happened. He had about two dozen little kids standing around in that yard watching him. And Idnatius had on a big cape like Superman and they was candles burning all over. The whole time his momma was screaming out the front door for him to throw the dog in the garbage can and get in the house. Well, that’s when things started going bad around here.”

 While Levy was absorbing this information, Ignatius and his mother came wheeling to the curb before the house, and were promptly engaged in an imbroglio over Inez’s engagement to the gentle, well-meaning Claude Robichaux. Gus Levy stood, transfixed by the absurd tableaux.

 (311) (Irene) had fallen to her knees and was asking the sky, “What I done wrong, God? Tell me, Lord. I been good.”

 “You’re kneeling on Rex’s grave!” Ignatius shouted.

We can all understand how powerful the death of a beloved pet can affect anyone, particularly a boy such as Ignatius who was overweight (a “big fat high school boy”) and assuredly precocious, neither trait likely to endear him to others his age. Perhaps we could reason that, for Ignatius, the dog Rex was the only creature who loved him wholeheartedly and without reserve. For that love to be negated by his Church and scorned by his mother (“throw the dog in the garbage can”) amounted to an apocalypse for Ignatius, for whom that love had almost if not actual divine connotations.

Seeing his mother not only kneeling on Rex’s grave, but praying, triggers such an outrage in Ignatius, as if she were committing some sort of profound blasphemy. Perhaps we can find sufficient theological implications in these passages to suggest that the death of Rex (“the king”) is for Ignatius nothing less than the death of God.

Perhaps. Yet, bearing in mind that A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing if not a work of genius employing absurdity, slapstick, and a winsome affection to tell the story of a modern-day crusader, we shouldn’t expect Toole to craft an—albeit offstage—character with anything approaching unrelenting gravity. Indeed, we find a generous dose of camp/Rebalaisian comedy earlier in the novel.

Ignatius and Irene have been at it again, and Ignatius has bolted to his room for refuge. Again, note the theological language in the passage:

(26) Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events hd taken since the reformation. Doris Day and Greyhound Senicruisers, whenever they came to mind, created an even more rapid expansion of his central region. But since the attempted arrest and the accident, he had been bloating for (27-28) almost no reason at all, his pyloric valve snapping shut indiscriminately and filling his stomach with trapped gas, gas which had character and being and resented its confinement.

He wondered whether his pyloric valve might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something. As a medievalist Ignatius believed in the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a central concept in De Consolatione Philosophiae, the philosophical work which had laid the foundation for medieval thought. Boethius, the late Roman who had written the Consolatione while unjustly imprisoned by the emperor, had said that a blind goddess spins us on a wheel, that our luck comes in cycles. Was the ludicrous attempt to arrest him the beginning of a bad cycle? Was his wheel rapidly spinning downward? The accident was also a bad sign. Ignatius was worried. For all his philosophy, Boethius had still been tortured and killed. Then Ignatius’ valve closed again, and he rolled over on his left side to press the valve open.

 “Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.”

 “What you mumbling about in there, boy?” his mother asked through the closed door.

 “I am praying,” Ignatius answered angrily.

 “Patrolman Mancuso’s coming today to see me about the accident. You better say a little Hail Mary for me, honey.

 “Oh, my God,” Ignatius muttered.

 “I think it’s wonderful you praying, babe. I been wondering what you do locked up in there all the time.”

 “Please go away!” Ignatius screamed. “You’re shattering my religious ecstasy.”

 Bouncing up and down on his side vigorously, Ignatius sensed a belch rising in his throat, but when he expectantly opened his mouth, he omitted only a small burp. Still, the bouncing had some physiological effect. Ignatius touched the small erection that was pointing downward into the sheet, held it, and lay still trying to decide what to do. In this position, with the red flannel nightshirt around his chest and his massive stomach sagging into the mattress, he thought somewhat sadly that after eighteen years with his hobby it had become merely a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it. At one time he had almost developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and fervor of an artist and philosopher, a scholar and gentleman. There were still hidden in his room several accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxema (sic). Putting them away again after it was all over had eventually grown too depressing.

 Ignatius manipulated and concentrated. At last, a vision appeared, the familiar figure of the large and devoted collie that had been his pet when he was in high school. “Woof!” Ignatius almost heard Rex say, once again. “Woof! Woof! Arf!” Rex looked so lifelike. One ear dropped. He panted. The apparition jumped over a fence and chased a stick that somehow landed in the middle of Ignatius’ quilt. As the tan and white fur grew closer, Ignatius’ eyes dilated, crossed, and closed, and he lay wanly back among his four pillows, hoping that he had some Kleenex in his room.

St. Teresa envisioned an angel carrying a long, golden spear with a fiery tip. ‘[He] plunged it into my deepest inward. When he drew it out, I thought my entrails would be drawn out too and when he left me. I glowed in the hot fire of love for God.” I’d be among the many who might present this passage as a precedent for religious eroticism.

But let’s remember where we are—in a world rife with absurd, comic scenarios—and who we’re dealing with, delusional, immature Ignatius J. Reilly, whose “hobby”, however stripped of the “flights of fancy and invention” retained the “vision” of the large and devoted collie,” Rex, chasing a stick that had somehow landed in his lap, an image of pitiable, grubby auto-eroticism slathered with a sweep of Christian religiosity.

Theroux at Rowan Oak

Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident–if not always distinct–clarion that sounds from the center of Lafayette County across the world.

Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s oeuvre spans generations.

Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess, as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, and it’s important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed, and, yes, fallen South, however better perceptible by far in his own assessment than by any others’.