Dreaming Something Real: A Review of Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan

IMG_6592“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.

51ETxQY6ioL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_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)


Lewis Nordan

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

209 pages


Why don’t country people just get out?

rich-brown-219577It’s subtly phrased, but I’m hearing it more in recent days – Why don’t people who live in the country just get out of there?  Rural America has gotten a lot of attention in recent months in the wake of the unexpected presidential election results.  The problems of the heartlands — and particularly the white, working-class residents of the heartlands —  are being probed and pondered.  Heck, I just finished writing an article for the United Methodist Publishing House’s FaithLink curriculum on the topic.  And there are some folks who are looking at the problems and saying, “Why do they stay?”

Recently two Princeton researchers, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published a follow-up to their disturbing 2015 report that showed that mortality rates for certain classes of middle-aged white Americans, in contrast to their counterparts around the world and to other Americans, were rising sharply.  In their previous report they identified three major culprits — drugs, alcohol, and suicide — for the rising number of deaths among 50-something white adults.  In the follow-up they went deeper and concluded that the problem was something harder to define, something “spiritual.”  Perhaps, having suffered a long period of economic stagnation and decline, these folks are suffering from “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.”

Having named something as nebulous as “cumulative distress,” the media quickly picked a new phrase for the phenomenon: White working-class Americans, who disproportionately inhabit rural America, are suffering from “deaths of despair.”

David Brooks, in a New York Times editorial on addressing opioid abuse, drew the logical conclusion, “These addictions and deaths are happening in the most socially and economically barren parts of the country. An anti-opioid effort won’t be effective unless it’s part of a broader effort at social and economic reweaving, a set of efforts to either help people move out of rural, blighted communities or to find jobs and social networks while there.”  It’s the place!  If  we can’t fix it, we’ve got to get them out.

The Atlantic painted a similarly grim picture of rural life in an article last summer called “The Graying of America”:  “Those who live there tend to like it, but they’re aging, and there aren’t enough jobs to keep younger people around. So kids and grandkids move to the cities, coming back on holidays, inheriting their parents’ homes and leaving them empty, wondering what will happen to the towns their parents say used to thrive. This is how rural America dies: not with a bang but a whimper.”  Worse than this, the article says, old folks are trapped in the countryside because the property value of their homes has dropped so much that they can’t even sell.

Something has happened to America’s relationship with its heartlands.  Where they used to be the place we would go to remember who we are, now they are a problem to be fixed or a prison to be escaped.

I want to be clear-eyed about the challenges, but I also believe that part of the “spiritual” renewal that will combat the epidemic of despair will come from this very land.  What ails rural America is what ails all America – a failure to truly inhabit the place where we are, to attend to the land, and to deepen our connection with transcendence.  Israel’s God always talked about a covenant with the land as well as the people.  And in the land is promise.

There’s work to be done here, no doubt.  But I don’t think we’re any more blighted or benighted here than elsewhere.  And I also believe that there is still healing to be had here.  So thanks, David Brooks et al, but I think I’ll stay.  Come visit sometime.