“Probably the real self is in fact the invented self fully accepted.” That’s Lewis Nordan’s justification for declaring that his outrageous, out-sized fiction is actually memoir. He created himself through imagining a different past, different circumstances, and a different father than the disappointing realities he knew as a child growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi. And because he so fully entered the fiction he wrote, he found in it a lasting reality.
I discovered Lewis Nordan earlier this year when I read Wolf Whistle, his wild (and creepily humorous) take on the Emmett Till murder which happened not far away from his Mississippi home. What I loved about Nordan was his ear for dialogue, his willingness to risk difficult perspectives (e.g. narrators that included violent racists and Till’s dislocated eye), and his freedom. All with a strong sense of place.
I knocked around Nordan’s Mississippi this summer. Nordan himself died in 2012, but I brought with me Music of the Swamp, his loosely-constructed narrative about a boy named Sugar Mecklin with a childhood much like his own. It’s not as exuberant as Wolf Whistle. There’s a lot of his personal despair spilling into this story. The book opens with the discovery of a body and includes the father’s judgment on the whole sorry scene, “The Delta is filled up with death.”
Despite that, Sugar emerges as a dreamer, seeing the world as he wants to see it. Creating a bond with a father who is incapable of returning his affection. Imagining a more magical world.
One of the key scenes takes place at a Mississippi beach following a hurricane. Attracted by low hotel rates in the aftermath of the storm, Sugar’s dad tries to woo his mother into a second honeymoon and only reluctantly agrees to take Sugar along. Amidst the wreckage and obvious ugliness, the family struggles to make the vacation work. And even though it doesn’t, you can’t help but admire the effort.
My edition of the book has an essay at the end entitled “The Invention of Sugar: An Essay about Life in Fiction—and Vice Versa.” I was very glad to have this glimpse into Nordan’s process. It’s here that he shares his life-long struggle to fully accept his invented self. And it’s here he finds some healing.
“Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non historical was for a while historical then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.” (209)
Fiction finds a way to include the end to our restless longings within the structure of time and in that way becomes our reality. This is how I view the Christian narrative of the Bible. Within the despair and suffering of the world, there is another reality made clear by a human life emerging from a long narrative of a wild and unruly people and exposing the ultimate victory of love. The end of our desire appearing in the middle of the story, as it were, challenging us to see the world as it really is. Like the beauty of the swamps of Mississippi, it is so easily disregarded. And yet for sharp-eyed dreamers it is the heartbeat of something enduring and inevitable.
I’m going back to Nordan’s Mississippi, if only in his fiction. Perhaps Sugar Among the Freaks is next.
Music of the Swamp
by Lewis Nordan
Algonquin Books, 1992