James Dickerson

"I wrote it with some pain and so on, but it was not until after I finished that I thought my God, what have I done? I've just told everything." That's Lewis Nordan speaking, better known as Buddy to his friends and to readers of his just published memoir, Boy with Loaded Gun (the title is a reference to his mail-order acquisition of a gun as a teenager and his fleeting thoughts about shooting his stepfather from ambush). He is addressing the natural unease felt by all fiction writers who delve into autobiography.

Actually, when Nordan turned the manuscript of Boy with Loaded Gun in to his publisher, he called it "a novel about Lewis Nordan." The author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Wolf Whistle and The Sharpshooter Blues, he felt the need to rearrange the names of the people in his life and to make up some of the conversations that took place.

That's because Nordan didn't research his life, not in the sense that he went back and interviewed people from his past. Instead, he relied on memory and applied a novelist's interpretation of the events that shaped his life.

"I was not convinced until the last minute that it should be called a memoir," he says. "It's more of a publishing matter than a writer's matter. When I started, I told them [the publishers] I wanted to write what could be called a novel about Buddy Nordan and that it would be as true as I could make it. But, really, I'm as comfortable with 'autobiographical novel' as a memoir."

Whether you call it an autobiographical novel or a memoir, the result is a finely crafted, deeply moving account of Nordan's upbringing in Itta Bena, Mississippi, and his journey as a literary man, admitted heavy drinker, and self-confessed unfaithful husband, from that tine Delta community to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he now lives and teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburg. 

Although the idea of returning to Mississippi to live has occurred to him from time to time, he says it is not so much an option anumre because of extensive ties in Pittsburgh. "I look longingly at the place at times, but I've found I'm a better Southerner outside the South than in the South. I don't want to be melodramatic, but writing as an expatriate, with a sense of longing and love and mythological memories, took the place of some of the old anger I had about the racial violence. . . . When I left the South, I had felt trapped for so long. I joined the Navy as a means of getting out, and I ended up going back [to the South] to go to college. It is only by being away that I have understood the culture I was rejecting."

"I've found I'm a better Southerner outside the South than in the South."

Long after completeing work on Boy with Loaded Gun, Nordan returned to the Mississippi Delta in August 1999 on assignment for the New York Times to write a nonfiction article about the blues.

"They sent me down the old blues highway, Highway 61, from Memphis to New Orleans," he says. "I was hanging out in blues joints, literally. I put 3,000 miles on the car between Memphis and New Orleans. Lots of back roads and juke joints."

As luck would have it, he received word that a cousin from Minnesota would be visiting Itta Bena during that time. The cousin had not seen the little town since 1957. Together, they revisited their former haunts, looking for old landmarks and forgotten memories. Quickly, they learned that Thomas Wolfe was right about the futility of coming home with the expectation of finding old memories alive and well. "Itta Bena is not the town it once was," says Nordan. "All the stores I knew are falling down." 

Once of the "good" changes that has taken place in the Delta, he says, is its acceptance of the music that originated there. "Blues music was a dirty little secret that we listened to, and now it is an institution," he says. "It should have been at the time. I didn't have the breadth of imagination to understand what a special place [the Delta] was at the time."

As he looks back, it was the blues, as much as anything, that influenced his writing. But wait, there was one other influence that some would argue is as Southern as the blues or Karo pecan pie. "We always hear Southerners say that the rhythm in their language comes from the King James Bible and preaching, but I think mine comes from the blues—and from cheerleaders," he says, laughing. "Those sing-song cheerleader chants. In high school I was on the bench during the football games. I wasn't playing and I was far more interested in the music of their voices than I was in what was going on on the field."

Nordan's concern about how his old Mississippi friends and former lovers would respond to Boy with Loaded Gun is transparent in our conversation. To the best of his knowledge, only one of the people written about in the book received an advance proof, and Nordan is not sure how that happened. Nordan met Dorris and Helga (not their real names) at a laundromat in Pittsburg where he had moved from Arkansas after his divorce from his first wife, Elizabeth. Tragically, shortly after moving there, his son committed suicide.

Dorris and Helga so impressed him (and vice versa) that he gave up his lodgings in the YMCA and moved into their house with them, where he slept on the floor of their unfurnished spare room. Nordan was unemployed at the time and dealing with more demons than should be allowed under the law, so it was a godsend in many respects.

That, of course, is one of the great fears harboured by all writers, that someone who has been written about in a book will read it before it has been placed in more unbiased hands. Nordan need not have worried. To his surprise, Dorris called him up and told him he had read the book. "He aboslutely loved it," Nordan says, the relief still lingering in his voice. "He was very friendly."

 

James L. Dickerson was bron in Greenwood, Mississippi. He is the author of Goin' Back to Memphis and Dixie's Dirty Secret.

"I wrote it with some pain and so on, but it was not until after I finished that I thought my God, what have I done? I've just told everything." That's Lewis Nordan speaking, better known as Buddy to his friends and to readers of his just published memoir, Boy with Loaded Gun (the title […]

Born at the turn of the century, Emmett Miller was a Georgia-raised blackface entertainer who recorded a string of records, mostly in the 1920s, that helped to fill the creative void between ragtime and jazz. Stylistically, he was neither blues nor country, black nor white. Think yodeling blues singer. Talent-wise, he was neither good nor bad mostly just something in-between, different enough to strike a chord with those who attended his minstrel performances and purchased his records.

Nick Tosches, contributing editor for Vanity Fair and best-selling author of Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, became obsessed with Miller more than 25 years ago—a fascination to which he admits without embarrassment while researching a book about country music. The fact that Merle Haggard dedicated his album I Love Dixie Blues to Miller was enough to tweak Tosches' curiosity. Not until he discovered one of Miller's recordings in the bargain bin of a New York record store did he understand why Haggard and others felt obligated to tip their hats to the entertainer. He writes, "When I heard Miller's actual voice, forthshining from the coruscations of those slow-spinning emerald grooves, I was astounded, and my search for information on him began in earnest."

To say that Tosches was obsessed with this white man who liked to perform made-up as a black man is an understatement. He pursued Miller with the righteous zeal of a cuckolded husband on the trail of his marital adversary. But, in truth, this gracefully written book contains very little information about Emmett Miller. Rather, it is more about the author's search for some semblance of creative unity and purpose in American music. It's a noble quest, a journey of discovery that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

James L. Dickerson is the author of Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley's Eccentric Manager.

 

Born at the turn of the century, Emmett Miller was a Georgia-raised blackface entertainer who recorded a string of records, mostly in the 1920s, that helped to fill the creative void between ragtime and jazz. Stylistically, he was neither blues nor country, black nor white. Think yodeling blues singer. Talent-wise, he was neither good nor […]

hat if you dreamed of becoming a writer, slaved for months over a novel, only to discover that it's your law school roommate who has crafted a fantastic debut story? His book is a perfect page-turner with one catch: it's about you and your life experiences. What do you do? Probably nothing. It's a free country and he stole your thoughts fair and square. Anyone foolish enough to broadcast their life experiences to the world probably deserves to have them stolen anyway, right? OK, suppose the roommate dies in a bike accident before he can publish the book. Would you put your name on it and pretend it's yours? In About the Author, Cal Cunningham does exactly that, earning $2 million in publishing and motion picture advances as the autobiography shoots to the top of the bestseller lists. But as compelling as that plot line is, it only gets you through the first 38 pages of this richly textured novel. Before you know what has happened, you are transported from a touchy-feely, literary introspective to a first-rate thriller, as Cal realizes that someone knows about his secret.

In his first novel, author John Colapinto, who has a nonfiction book and numerous magazine articles to his credit, has created a world with characters so interesting that when you finish the book, you want them to return. Desperate to hang on to his success, Cal meets with drug dealers, generation-X lesbians, psychotic killers and New England villagers who seem to have been bused in from another century.

A thinking person's thriller, About the Authorcontains plenty of action, but it is complemented by superb character development and an impeccable sense of dramatic timing. Colapinto never hits the reader in the face with moral issues, but they are inescapable. We're helplessly drawn into Cal's first person adventures as he tries to save the life that was never really his. A thriller with knowing psychological insights, About the Author looks at the deeper issues of identity and the meaning of success. I don't know if Colapinto is the best new novelist to debut this year, but if he isn't, he is pretty darned close.

James L. Dickerson's most recent books are Colonel Tom Parker and Faith Hill: Piece of My Heart, both published this year.

hat if you dreamed of becoming a writer, slaved for months over a novel, only to discover that it's your law school roommate who has crafted a fantastic debut story? His book is a perfect page-turner with one catch: it's about you and your life experiences. What do you do? Probably nothing. It's a free […]

A columnist for The New York Times, author Joe Queenan had a bestseller in 1998 with Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, a critique of pop culture that skewered everything from fast food restaurants to John Tesh concerts. His latest, Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation, is equal parts humor and venom, a book written by a Boomer and filled with all the angst that has characterized that age group since the introduction of the Hula Hoop. Applying his razor wit to his own generation, Queenan charts its course from the sacrifices of the '60s to the excesses of the '80s from activism to materialism. A good-natured grump, he has fun taking his generation to task, and this kind of self-loathing, mixed with his social commentary, always makes for belly laughs. "A friend of mine once remarked that when Baby Boomers are old and decrepit, no one is going to go out and make a Saving Private Ryan commemorating their finest hour," he writes. "They didn't have a finest hour." Queenan often writes tongue-in-cheek, but at times his commentary has all the subtlety of an in-your-face raspberry. For Boomers, the best kind of comic is an angry one and, with his own choleric brand of humor, Queenan carries on that tradition splendidly. Survivors of the '60s will laugh all the way through this satire and then they will hate Queenan for writing it, which is what he wants, for only in being hated by others of his generation can he feel good about himself. It's a Boomer thing.

A columnist for The New York Times, author Joe Queenan had a bestseller in 1998 with Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, a critique of pop culture that skewered everything from fast food restaurants to John Tesh concerts. His latest, Balsamic Dreams: A Short But Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation, is […]

f jazz is a living art form, it is due in no small part to the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, who has gone, in what seems like the blink of an eye, from being the hot young gun of jazz to being its elder statesman. There is no one on the scene today who can do what Marsalis does with his trumpet, but musical ability is only part of his talent. A visionary, he has become an articulate voice on behalf of music education in America's schools.

Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life is not your typical music book. It contains almost no history, offers few facts and boasts only six photographs. Rather, it is a slice of life from the road adventures of Marsalis and his band. Stylistically, the book is innovative. Co-author Carl Vigeland supplies the eyes and ears, while Marsalis offers the heart and soul.

Marsalis' remarks, which appear in italics, are presented in a stream of consciousness style similar to the way he plays his horn. Vigeland's role is the same as the rhythm section in Marsalis' band to provide a rhythmical framework to which the soloist can return after a virtuoso outing.

Marsalis has a great deal to say in this book, but he is never more interesting than when writing about his instrument. “The trumpet can tell when you're afraid of it,” he writes. “That's why it's best to approach your horn with seriousness whenever it comes out of the case.” Sometimes Marsalis' actions are more eloquent than his words. Once, while speaking to a group of students, a skeptical woman standing at the side of the room asked him if there was really such a thing as a love song. Stunned at first, Marsalis thought a moment, then brought his horn to his lips and played Gershwin's Embraceable You. At the end of the song, the woman nodded, questioned answered.

I cannot imagine a jazz fan who will not enjoy this narrative, but I suspect the book will find an even broader audience among those who read for pleasure and, as Marsalis himself would say when he's in the groove, “that's cool!” James L. Dickerson is the author of an upcoming biography of jazz legend Lil Hardin Armstrong.

f jazz is a living art form, it is due in no small part to the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, who has gone, in what seems like the blink of an eye, from being the hot young gun of jazz to being its elder statesman. There is no one on the scene today who can […]

Tom Brokaw tapped an enormous reservoir of dormant sentiment in 1998 with the publication of The Greatest Generation, available this month for the first time in paperback. After more than 40 printings, there are almost 4 million hardcover copies in print, making it one of the best-selling nonfiction titles of the past decade.

Brokaw's thesis is simple: The generation of Americans that came of age during World War II was "the greatest generation any society has ever produced." He made his point by telling the stories of nearly 50 survivors of that era, most of whom are now in their late 70s to mid-80s. But this great generation is losing the battle against time, and the busy NBC anchorman wanted to capture their stories before they disappeared.

The book became a phenomenon, not just because of the surviving generation, but because of the succeeding generation, the baby boomers who grew up in families and communities affected by the sacrifices and heroism of their fathers' and mothers' generation.

Now comes a follow-up, An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation which is essentially a collection of letters Brokaw received in reaction to the first book. Brokaw writes in the foreword: "It was a common trait of the Greatest Generation not to discuss the difficult times and how they shaped their lives, but now, in their twilight years, more and more members of that remarkable group of men and women are determined to share their experiences." Whether the stories are about a 17-year-old enlistee who participated in the Bataan Death March, or about eyewitness accounts of the D-Day Invasion or the Battle of the Bulge, they are riveting in their detail and inspirational in their selfless passion.

As a baby boomer, I could not help but be affected by these books. My Uncle Calvin lost an arm at the age of 18 aboard a ship in the South Pacific. After more than 55 years of living without that arm, he is still with us, thankfully, a role model for me and others of my generation.

Whatever the final assessment of American culture, certainly one of the highest points will be the generation that marched off to war to save the world and did! James L. Dickerson is the author of numerous books, including Colonel Tom Parker, reviewed in this issue.

Tom Brokaw tapped an enormous reservoir of dormant sentiment in 1998 with the publication of The Greatest Generation, available this month for the first time in paperback. After more than 40 printings, there are almost 4 million hardcover copies in print, making it one of the best-selling nonfiction titles of the past decade. Brokaw's thesis […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!