The Southern Underbelly: Remembering Lewis Nordan


In Memoriam

The other night, in order to feel close to my friend Lewis “Buddy” Nordan, who recently died, I started rereading his novel Wolf Whistle, a story inspired by the murder of Emmett Till in 1954. (Buddy grew up in the Mississippi Delta near the place of the murder. He knew the murderers. He became friends with Emmett Till’s mother.)

After reading the opening chapter, I took my dog outside under the moonlight. I felt wrapped in Buddy’s language. The night was cool. The half-moon was bright enough to throw shadows. When my dog disappeared in the shadow of a cedar tree, I started sketching in my mind a few paragraphs of fiction about a boy and his dog. Minutes later, back inside, I had five paragraphs on paper, a novel opening, something I’d been seeking for months. I read it over. There in my sentences, besides the dog and the bright half-moon and shadows, I found an improbable gathering of nouns: frogs, the Battle of Fort Fisher, a flood plane, Bela Fleck, the planet Venus, and a set of plans for a freelance funeral militia. I had opened up to something. Both my opening up and the something were gifts made possible in large part by Buddy’s odd vision—a vision that allowed him to juxtapose thunderbolts and whispers, a vision on display here in his opening to chapter nine of Wolf Whistle, occurring after the murder at the center of the book:

From the eye that Solon’s bullet had knocked from its socket and that hung now upon the child’s moon-dark cheek in the insistent rain, the dead boy saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music, as living boys, still sleeping, in their safe beds, might hear singing from unexpected throats one morning when they wake up, the wind in a willow shade, bream bedding in the shallows of a lake …

The chapter continues from the perspective of the murdered boy’s eye.

Buddy’s geography, rural Mississippi, might invite comparisons to William Faulkner’s. Buddy’s Yoknapatawpha is Arrow Catcher, a place where the humor is looser and more carefree than that found in Mr. Bill’s imaginary milieu. In Music from the Swamp, a boy narrator and his friend, Roy Dale, observe an argument between Roy Dale’s passive daddy, Runt, and his mean mama, Fortunata.

Runt was glum. He said, “I scrubbed the basement floor.” It was an apology and an admission of guilt.
Fortunata [sniffing] said, “My God, what did you use!”
Runt was hidden inside his own head. His eyes peered out of a skull. He looked like a rat in a soup can.
I was frightened of what might happen next. I said to Roy Dale, “Want to go outside?”

Mr. Faulkner and Buddy and all writers have their ways of “turning loose.” Some rely mainly on humor, others on violence, and the turning loose may come to have some predictability about it. When Mr. Faulkner turns loose, I sense the writer turning loose—all that rich, complicated history, and personal and family drama comes foaming up to the reader, courtesy of the writer. When Buddy turns loose, it’s so often a character turning loose—or it feels that way to me—the character’s syntax/idiom delivered so precisely it feels clairvoyant. Here’s a character in The Sharpshooter Blues talking about shooting a pistol:

You wouldn’t want to be careless with it, you wouldn’t want to hurt anybody, but to fire a shot out your bedroom window, say into a neighbor’s garage, or in your own kitchen, into a large appliance, maybe, or just through the ceiling, when you were singing the blues, when you had lost your dear wife in childbirth and your only son had come out a waterhead, well, there was not a thing in the world to criticize about shooting off a pistol in that case, now was there, nothing but a good idea to spread a few rounds through the house, nail a few nails in the wall, so to speak, melt a little ice cream.

Once we became friends, Buddy and I enjoyed talking about, among other subjects, mishaps and dread—his end often laced in understatement. His mind often seemed to work in casual conversation like it did in fiction writing. One Saturday afternoon we were chatting on the phone. That morning my puppy’s lips swelled up after shots from a vet. I’d then taken him back to the vet, where he got another shot that made his lips go down.

Buddy started the conversation telling me about the rescue squad coming to his house two nights earlier when a family member had suffered an asthma attack—siren, flashing lights, gurney, the scare, fear of death. Surely he omitted no detail. He went right into another story about a car accident earlier that week, involving another member of his family—the crash, hospital visit, counseling, concern, et cetera.

There was a pause and I didn’t know exactly what to say. I mumbled something like, “Gosh, that was all pretty bad,” and then said, “Well, my dog’s lips swelled up this morning.”

Buddy says, “And here I’ve been going on and on and on.”

In Buddy’s work I often find some balancing of Kafka, Jesus, and Monty Python. And reading him I sometimes wish everybody came from where he came from so they might better know firsthand the marvels of his characters’ language. In that place he grew up, the Delta, you might find (compared to Faulkner’s hometown) some few degrees of movement toward a kind of apparent modern Southern underbelly. Maybe Buddy does his characters a little too well—and maybe that embarrasses any number of modern readers. When the South he often depicts seems a little more ancient, removed, historical, if it ever does, I think his name on the betting sheet, horse card, or whatever it is will move a little closer to Mr. Bill’s.

Clyde Edgerton is the author of ten novels, a memoir, and numerous short stories, and essays. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and five of his novels have been New York Times Notable Books.