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)

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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

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What I Learned From a Day with Emmett Till

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In the video, Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, Mississippi, looks out over Black Bayou. This is where the body of Emmett Till was dumped following his brutalization and murder in 1955.  In a voiceover, Thomas says, in effect, “Things haven’t changed here.  A lot of the problems that were here then are here now.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  Spending a few days in the Delta, I feel as if I’m in a place where economic opportunity is still stagnant and racial reconciliation is still a long way off.  In many ways, it’s similar to my own home on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  This is a place where young people are told, by observation if not in words, “Your best chance is to leave and if you do stay, don’t set your sights too high.”

I spent the afternoon making the pilgrimage to the Emmett Till sites.  I wasn’t alone.  There are tour busses traveling through the area making the stops, too.  What else brings people to Money, Mississippi?

IMG_6583That’s where you can find the overgrown ruins of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the country store where 14-year-old Emmett, down from Chicago for a visit with his great uncle, Mose Wright, went on August 24, 1955.  While his companions were outside on the porch, Emmett went in and what happened in the minute he was in there has been a matter of dispute ever since.

Did he make lewd remarks and grab Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the counter, around the waist as she claimed (and recently recanted, in part)?  What was the character of the whistle he made as he was hustled away by his cousins?  Whatever offense it was in the complex racial structures of pre-Civil Rights Mississippi paled in comparison to what came next.

IMG_6586Next door to the ruins is a old filling station and store restored to look as it did in the 1950s, down to the Gulf pumps advertising No-Nox gasoline.  A sign, often vandalized, designates the spot on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

Across the street, a group of white construction workers leaned against their equipment and watched me photographing the sign and store.  Later, they saw the tour bus pull up and a group of twenty-some people, all white, filed out.  It was hard not to project myself into the workers' heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to tut over and shake our heads and fingers at? Do they only come to the Delta to amplify its shame?”

Later I pulled into Glendora, former home of J.W. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy.  The house is gone now; just a patch of open ground remains.  Milam was acquitted of Till’s murder though he later confessed along with Roy Bryant in an infamous Look magazine article for which they were paid $4000.

Next door, still standing, is the cotton gin where Milam and Bryant found an old fan which they looped around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire before dumping his body.  As gruesome crimes go, they don’t get more gruesome.  Something that was obvious when Till’s horribly disfigured body was found three days later.  His mother’s decision to have an open casket for his funeral led to an iconic picture of the effects of white supremacy run amok.

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The cotton gin today houses a small museum called the Emmett Till Historical Intrepid Center.  You read that right.  Intrepid.  There was something a little intrepid, audacious, and fearless about Emmett Till.  Reckless, you might even call it.  By all accounts, the young teenager enjoyed being provocative and his murderers cited his refusal to act regretful as one of the reasons for their brutality.  It’s one of the things that make Emmett Till more than a victim in this story.  His refusal to be defined by the unjust powers of the day is ennobling.

So why not take a place that was commandeered for a heinous act and convert it into an intrepid center?  The museum is worth the visit, even if you may want for a little more air-conditioning on a really hot day.  The displays are visually interesting and help place Till’s story within a larger Civil Rights narrative.

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As I left the building I was being watched again, this time by a group of African-American men standing outside a nearby building by the railroad tracks.  Again I couldn’t help projecting myself into their heads.  “Is this all Mississippi is to the rest of the country?  A place to gawk at and burnish progressive credentials?  When, as Mayor Thomas said, nothing really changes?”

I brushed aside my self-consciousness to take a picture of the sign describing the Glendora Gin.  In the background of the photo was the place where Milam’s tool shed was, the place Milam & Bryant brought Emmett to be tortured and mutilated.  Well, at the very least…that’s gone.