Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Doomed With Joy
It's been over a month since Lewis Nordan passed away. In that time, I've reread Wolf Whistle, his most acclaimed novel, and some of the shorter works, and I've thought a great deal about what his work has meant to me.
When I was a boy bookseller, Nordan's work hit me like a train, with its outlandish heroes and villains, the decidedly oddball humor, the deep love his characters seemed to have for one another, and his descriptions of the Mississippi swamps, a symbol of both fecundity and decay, near the mythical town of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. My introduction to his work was an advance copy of The Sharpshooter Blues. After devouring it and all the other titles the store had on hand, I was on the Nordan bus (likely, a short bus) for life.
Handselling it to anyone and everyone was a pleasure. Because of the outright wackiness of the characters, I could tell customers, "If you're only going to read one book this year about a one-armed llama farmer, make it Lightning Song. You must meet Swami Don" or "Tired of all those other books with hydrocephalic lead characters? You gotta read Sharpshooter Blues" or even "Ever go chicken fishing? Sugar Mecklin can teach you how". It was as though I was introducing them to people they simply had to meet and I knew once they'd met Swami Don or Hydro or Sugar, they'd be hooked. Eventually, doing so caught the eye of Nordan's publisher, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
One afternoon, I found a message asking me to call the head of marketing, Ina Stern. "Uh oh." I thought. "Have I done something wrong?" When I got through to her, I was surprised to find she just wanted to thank me for handselling so many copies in the store and then we proceeded to talk about Lewis Nordan, whom she called Buddy, as did everyone who actually knew him, for almost an hour. I thought, "This is so great! The publisher wanted to THANK me. And I'm on the clock!" That conversation began a long friendship with Ina, Craig Popelars (who wrote a lovely memorial for the author here: http://goo.gl/pOBYo) and others at Algonquin, a house that has managed to publish more hits over the last 15 years than any other house its size and whose list rivals any of the Big Six. When I read of Nordan's death, the first thing I did was fire off condolences to Ina and Craig.
Nordan's novels, short stories and his memoir aren't for everyone. Some find it just a bit too much and if that's what you come away with, fine, but for me there is something more. Amidst all the strange and wonderful characters, there is a decided humanity and great depth of feeling. For all their considerable peccadilloes, the citizens of Arrow Catcher really are just plain folks. They live and love and feel and fret. They make bad decisions and have regrets but they seem to want what we all want: to be part of a community, to have friendships, to love and to be loved. It doesn't matter if you're a hydrocephalic man-child, a member of the all-girl football team, or the Prince of Darkness (he's the local mortician), there is love to be had and therefore, there is reason to live. Somehow, his characters always manage to find a way to tell the people they love just how much they love them; we should all be so lucky. As the narrator says in one story, "...I was my father's child and the child of this strange southern geography. I was beautiful, and also wise and sad and somehow doomed with joy". To me, this single sentence might encapsulate and epitomize Nordan's entire body of work.
I never got to meet Mr. Nordan. He never toured near my store. He never made the trip to BookExpo. He lived and taught in my beloved Pittsburgh. He published only one more book, his memoir, Boy With Loaded Gun. He got sick and stayed sick for an awfully long time, before he passed in April. I never got to call him Buddy but I feel as though I have lost someone sort of close to me and, with him, all those folks in Arrow Catcher. Still, I'll take the liberty. Thanks for everything, Buddy.