Brett Lott is a constant stranger. Born in Los Angeles to a transplanted Mississippi family, educated in Massachusetts and Ohio, married to a woman from New Jersey and now teaching in Charleston, he writes as one coming into, rather than growing out of his environment.
So it is not surprising that when he began Jewel, a novel based on his own family history, he wrote not a Roots-type celebration of continuity but a severe if sympathetic examination of one woman’s obsessive dedication to her mentally retarded child and the wrenching displacement it wreaked on that family.
"My grandmother is 84, my aunt is 48," Lott says as if the ages were themselves a reminder of their constant struggle, "and every day my grandmother makes my aunt’s lunch and wraps the lunchbox with masking tape so it won’t break open if she drops it. My aunt has a job bagging nuts and bolts . . ."
One day they’d do the bolts, another day the nuts, then the bolts, then the nuts. Certainly there’d been joy in her accomplishing that much; she even brought home a paycheck once a month, always for some odd small amount, $7.31, or $6.96. On those afternoons, she came home waving the check, we’d go right down to the bank, cash it, then go to dinner at a Denny’s or Sizzler, where I’d let her pay for her meal herself, though money still meant nothing to her, only pieces of paper, chunks of metal handed over to a smiling waitress.
". . . and when she gets paid they go out to Denny’s for dinner, and grandmother waits for the bus every day, and that’s what Brenda Kay’s life is about — wrapping tape around the lunch box and waiting for the bus."
Jewel, the book’s eponymous narrator, is Lott’s grandmother, and Brenda Kay is his aunt (the names and relationships in the book are all real, although the author’s is slightly changed). In 1943, after giving birth to five healthy children, Jewel and her husband Lester had what doctors then called "Mongolian idiot" who was not expected to live much beyond her second birthday. Terrified and then enraged, Jewel refused to institutionalize the child and committed herself to getting Brenda Kay the best treatment and training available – thus sentencing her already poor "cracker" family to even more severe financial privation, social stigma and finally a total and irrevocable uprooting. Those two harsh sacrifices — Jewel’s singleminded drive to better her child’s lot and the heavy price it exacted from the rest of the family — are the helix at the heart of the novel.
Some of the research for the story was relatively straightforward, Lott says, "Like, ‘What did you eat for dinner in the winter in Mississippi? What was it like to be told in the backwoods World War I Mississippi, that your child was a Mongolian idiot?’" But the real undercurrents ran deep, and for a long time dark.
"I had always intuited the difficulties" the family faced, Lott says. "My father told me he and his brother used to feel ashamed sometimes; they wouldn’t know whether to tell their girlfriends or take them home to meet the family, and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. Uncle James" — the oldest, who had joined up and was going to school in Texas on the GI bill before Brenda Kay’s condition was known — "never told his wife until the day the whole family showed up at their door on the way to California. My other uncle had a football scholarship to Mississippi State, but he gave it up to go on ahead to California to make money to support the family."
It was James who gave Lott the first important clue. "He told me, ‘Mama had to break Daddy’s will.’ It was a known fact in the family that Grandma has to completely break my grandfather to get him to go to Los Angeles," where there was a school that pioneered in education for retarded persons.
But the real key to the novel came, fittingly, from the Jewel herself. "I believe that all the great characters in Southern literature are failures," says Lott. "So I asked my grandmother, ‘What was your failure? How did you fail in your life?’ and she said, ‘I thought I could fix things, but I couldn’t.’"
I could fix things, I knew I could. All the child in my arms, all Brenda Kay — I decided then, there, that no one would ever use those two words, use Mongolian idiot to describe her in my presence, unless they wanted my full wrath down on them — needed was my love, not my abandonment . . . no matter my baby wasn’t normal as I’d been, was sick in some way I couldn’t understand; no matter he was already figuring on her dying. He didn’t know me, didn’t know what I could live through. I could do it. I could fix things: my life, my children’s lives, my husband’s life, Brenda Kay’s.
"There it was, the perfect motivation. I had a wonderful character who was convinced she could fix anything, and a situation that would never change." Every day, packing lunch, taping the lunch box, waiting for the bus.
The rest, says Lott, began to tell itself. Every day he sat at his desk, surrounded by "hundreds of family photographs," and lost himself in Mississippi. The one completely invented character, the black deus ex machina with the name Cathedral and the awful gift of prophecy, is at once truly Southern and larger than life, a gothic spirit of both revelation and retribution that gives Jewel its most pervasive Southern flavor.
That in itself poses a sort of dilemma for Lott, whose first two novels ("apprenticeships," he calls them) were kindly reviewed but not particular commercial successes. Jewel, on the other hand, has already been optioned by Sally Field, and "it would be the easiest thing in the world to write another big, sprawling Southern gothic novel. But I don’t want to be a Southern novelist, or a ‘New England novelist’" — his first two books were set in the North, garnering the predictable comparisons to John Cheever — "I just want to be an American novelist."
He’s already at work on his New Jersey novel, a love story set in the Pine Barrens; and after that he pans to try a novel based on his other grandfather, the merchant mariner-streetcar conductor-bit movie player. Yes, that would mean writing about Los Angeles, the hometown he’s never understood — but after all, it would be L.A. before it was L.A.