Get back to where you once belonged
Down in delta land with Lewis Nordan
"I wrote it with some pain and so on, but it was not until after I finished that I thought my God, what have I done? I've just told everything." That's Lewis Nordan speaking, better known as Buddy to his friends and to readers of his just published memoir, Boy with Loaded Gun (the title is a reference to his mail-order acquisition of a gun as a teenager and his fleeting thoughts about shooting his stepfather from ambush). He is addressing the natural unease felt by all fiction writers who delve into autobiography.
Actually, when Nordan turned the manuscript of Boy with Loaded Gun in to his publisher, he called it "a novel about Lewis Nordan." The author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Wolf Whistle and The Sharpshooter Blues, he felt the need to rearrange the names of the people in his life and to make up some of the conversations that took place.
That's because Nordan didn't research his life, not in the sense that he went back and interviewed people from his past. Instead, he relied on memory and applied a novelist's interpretation of the events that shaped his life.
"I was not convinced until the last minute that it should be called a memoir," he says. "It's more of a publishing matter than a writer's matter. When I started, I told them [the publishers] I wanted to write what could be called a novel about Buddy Nordan and that it would be as true as I could make it. But, really, I'm as comfortable with 'autobiographical novel' as a memoir."
Whether you call it an autobiographical novel or a memoir, the result is a finely crafted, deeply moving account of Nordan's upbringing in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and his journey as a literary man, admitted heavy drinker, and self-confessed unfaithful husband, from that tine Delta community to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he now lives and teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburg.
Although the idea of returning to Mississippi to live has occurred to him from time to time, he says it is not so much an option anumre because of extensive ties in Pittsburgh. "I look longingly at the place at times, but I've found I'm a better Southerner outside the South than in the South. I don't want to be melodramatic, but writing as an expatriate, with a sense of longing and love and mythological memories, took the place of some of the old anger I had about the racial violence. . . . When I left the South, I had felt trapped for so long. I joined the Navy as a means of getting out, and I ended up going back [to the South] to go to college. It is only by being away that I have understood the culture I was rejecting."
"I've found I'm a better Southerner outside the South than in the South."
Long after completeing work on Boy with Loaded Gun, Nordan returned to the Mississippi Delta in August 1999 on assignment for the New York Times to write a nonfiction article about the blues.
"They sent me down the old blues highway, Highway 61, from Memphis to New Orleans," he says. "I was hanging out in blues joints, literally. I put 3,000 miles on the car between Memphis and New Orleans. Lots of back roads and juke joints."
As luck would have it, he received word that a cousin from Minnesota would be visiting Itta Bena during that time. The cousin had not seen the little town since 1957. Together, they revisited their former haunts, looking for old landmarks and forgotten memories. Quickly, they learned that Thomas Wolfe was right about the futility of coming home with the expectation of finding old memories alive and well. "Itta Bena is not the town it once was," says Nordan. "All the stores I knew are falling down."
Once of the "good" changes that has taken place in the Delta, he says, is its acceptance of the music that originated there. "Blues music was a dirty little secret that we listened to, and now it is an institution," he says. "It should have been at the time. I didn't have the breadth of imagination to understand what a special place [the Delta] was at the time."
As he looks back, it was the blues, as much as anything, that influenced his writing. But wait, there was one other influence that some would argue is as Southern as the blues or Karo pecan pie. "We always hear Southerners say that the rhythm in their language comes from the King James Bible and preaching, but I think mine comes from the blues—and from cheerleaders," he says, laughing. "Those sing-song cheerleader chants. In high school I was on the bench during the football games. I wasn't playing and I was far more interested in the music of their voices than I was in what was going on on the field."
Nordan's concern about how his old Mississippi friends and former lovers would respond to Boy with Loaded Gun is transparent in our conversation. To the best of his knowledge, only one of the people written about in the book received an advance proof, and Nordan is not sure how that happened. Nordan met Dorris and Helga (not their real names) at a laundromat in Pittsburg where he had moved from Arkansas after his divorce from his first wife, Elizabeth. Tragically, shortly after moving there, his son committed suicide.
Dorris and Helga so impressed him (and vice versa) that he gave up his lodgings in the YMCA and moved into their house with them, where he slept on the floor of their unfurnished spare room. Nordan was unemployed at the time and dealing with more demons than should be allowed under the law, so it was a godsend in many respects.
That, of course, is one of the great fears harboured by all writers, that someone who has been written about in a book will read it before it has been placed in more unbiased hands. Nordan need not have worried. To his surprise, Dorris called him up and told him he had read the book. "He aboslutely loved it," Nordan says, the relief still lingering in his voice. "He was very friendly."
James L. Dickerson was bron in Greenwood, Mississippi. He is the author of Goin' Back to Memphis and Dixie's Dirty Secret.