Town of Marvels


Arts & Culture

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The boy and the girl were engaged, driving to California, where the girl wanted to make costumes for the movies. The boy planned to study Native American archaeology; he was just out of the Navy. They were the sort of young people I felt accurate calling beautiful—good-looking, around twenty years old, in love. But it was more than that. The fact is, it’s sustaining, getting older, to meet young adults who are hopeful and naïve, just enough.

They had a car, a dog, a vision. But they didn’t have a book. Leaving New England, they’d heard about a certain book on NPR, and the girl thought it sounded just right. The boy said they’d find a copy on the road somewhere. They drove for days, heading south from New Hampshire: Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee. No book. The girl pressed. The boy promised. Bookstores don’t exactly dot the American highway in the grand manner of Sbarros. Finally, driving through Mississippi, seeing a sign for Oxford, the boy suggested they stop, stretch their legs, find the damn book. Oxford was a university town, there had to be a bookstore somewhere.

They parked in the tiny main square. A bookstore stood on the corner under a sign for Fortune’s Famous Ice Cream. The girl walked the dog, the boy went inside. He asked, Do you have this book?

We do, the clerk said. And there it was, right next to the register, a stack of them. The clerk said, Do you want a signed copy?

I guess so, the boy said.

Wait, but you do know the author was here tonight, right? He just did a reading, the clerk said after a moment. It was about seven P.M., the verge of dusk. The boy was confused. Suddenly, the clerk was pointing out the window, saying, Wait, that’s him going by right there.

No one really knows the value of book tours. Whether or not they’re good ideas, or if they improve book sales. I happen to think the author is the last person you’d want to talk to about a book; they hate it by that point, they’ve already moved on to a new lover. Besides, the author never knows what the book is about anyway.

But then Lisa Howorth, one of Square Books’s owners, brought the boy and his fiancée up to the bar, out on the balcony, where Lisa’s husband, Richard, and I were enjoying the sunset, and the kids told me their story a little awkwardly, but with bravado, just enough, and I was practically tearful by the end, beer-buzzed and also somewhat weirded out, but at that moment I thought book tours—it was my first—were just extraordinary.

Richard and Lisa are known for showing writers a good time. But it is greater than them, the magical clout of Lafayette County, Mississippi, to disclose wonders. At least to the literarily inclined. Such as when we ate dinner at Ajax Diner around the corner, and I was staring closely at one booth because it looked to be the one from the paperback cover of Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked, the best food book I’ve ever read, and Richard informed me softly, indeed, it was that booth. Shit! Soon the party was up to a dozen, requiring several tables. The kids were there, plus many writers, many nonwriters. I was put next to a bearded, somewhat inaudible white-haired man—the type who’d look good bird hunting, who’d meet you at the train station with a thermos of martinis. Then, at one point, he asked me if I’d like to come by the house in the morning for a private tour. I declined politely—why would I want to see his house?

A man sitting across from me, a novelist, gripped the sugar shaker and said gravely, You don’t want to turn down that offer. So I rescinded.

At that point I was starting to feel the alcohol and it took me a couple more minutes to work out that my neighbor was a well-known writer, Larry Wells. Also, he was the husband of the late Dean Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner’s niece, whom Faulkner had raised like his own daughter after her father, Faulkner’s brother, died in a plane accident. Who was also the same woman who’d written the marvelous book Every Day by the Sun—which I owned and flipping loved, being a Faulkner nut—about growing up in Faulkner’s house. And by “the house,” of course, Larry had meant a private tour of Rowan Oak, the very same Oxford home.

Once I’d worked all that out, my idiocy was showing like a night-blooming flower, and I focused on my sandwich.

On early summer evenings in Oxford, around the square, there’s no need for strip clubs because the young women wear so little, and the young men wear their collars turned up to their ears, like dogs in lampshades, perhaps to keep their necks clean. I was told, as we left the restaurant, that on some nights the police ride horseback to shepherd the coeds and their idiots back to campus, when things get too raucous. Of course, Oxford has a much more serious history—riots burning when James Meredith tried to go to school; recently, students lobbing racial slurs while demonstrating in protest of Obama’s re-election; and many more students marching to protest the protesters.

But it was Richard who herded us back to the Howorths’ for bourbon, the record player, much book talk and gossip, all of us sitting or standing under shelves that reached the ceilings, stuffed full. We danced. Toward midnight, there was a conversation outside, surrounded by mammoth plants, jungle sounds, where a fashion designer told me she couldn’t see why you’d live anywhere else. Finally, a chat with the beautiful fiancés in the kitchen at two A.M. No one else was around. The boy looked stoned and confused, but not lost. They’d planned to get back on the road around midnight, find a campsite somewhere, but Lisa had offered them a bed. The boy said to me, This is one of the most amazing nights of my life.

Actually, it was supposed to be my bed. The Howorths had told my publicist I could spend the night at their house, but the publicist declined without even asking me.

I left the party ten minutes later; I had to get up early. In the dark, stumbling home, I called the beautiful children shit-bags and worse. Why couldn’t I sleep in that bed? Why did the party have to end for me? What the hell was in Jackson anyway?

When I flicked on the motel room’s overhead light, a fat cockroach waved from the bedspread, twiddling its antennae.

Even my final hours in Oxford had wonders. Larry toured me through Rowan Oak, pulling aside barricades put in place to keep the tourists out of certain rooms. He showed me where, for example, in the pantry, the Faulkners would write their friends’ phone numbers on the wall. Then we went outside, stood in Faulkner’s stable, and Larry told me how Faulkner had loved pulp novels, used to borrow them from the local pharmacy, and one of his favorites, according to Larry, was Murder in Pastiche, by Marion Mainwaring, which I’d later nab in a first edition. (It isn’t very good). I should note I had also woken up that morning at six A.M. to find a big tick on my scrotum. Probably I’d picked it up coming home the night before, trying to orienteer some woods around the motel. Anyway, though, this was also proved: that when ticks attack, the Oxford Walmart is open at six-thirty in the morning and sells precision tweezers for five bucks.

The final revelation was when I got home to North Carolina from my book tour, and my wife showed me that I’d drunk-mailed her around three A.M. from the motel, drunk, happy, hosting a tick but at that point unaware, insisting we move to Oxford immediately because it was a town of marvels, with so much waiting to be unveiled.

Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the novel You Lost Me There and most recently the memoir Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, now out from Picador in paperback. He is a cofounder of the online magazine The Morning News.