I went to the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last month for a very simple reason. I wanted to tell James McBride, in person, what I’m going to tell you now: his novel, The Good Lord Bird, one of five finalists for the fiction award, is the most astonishing book I read all year. It’s one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.
“Why, thank you very much,” McBride said from under the brim of his porkpie hat when I bumped into him at the pre-awards cocktail party and told him how I felt about his book. When I wished him luck at the awards ceremony later in the evening and told him I was pulling for him to win, he waved his arm at the cavernous banquet room and said, “At this point it doesn’t really matter. It’s all good.”
I didn’t expect McBride to win the National Book Award that night because he was up against bigger names — Thomas Pynchon, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rachel Kushner — and I long ago stopped believing that artistic awards are based solely on artistic merit. McBride obviously didn’t expect to win, either, because when his name was called out as the winner for fiction, he stepped to the podium without a prepared speech, visibly surprised. “I didn’t think I would win today,” he told the crowd of 700. Then, echoing what he had said to me earlier at the cocktail party, he added, “If any of the others writers had won I wouldn’t feel bad because they’re all fine writers. But it sure is nice to win.”
And it sure is nice to see such a deserving winner. The Good Lord Bird is narrated by Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas territory who is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, then, passing as a girl, follows Brown on his various military and political campaigns, all the way to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, a major catalyst for the Civil War. (The book’s title refers to the red-headed woodpecker, a bird whose feathers serve as charms, a bird so beautiful that when people see one, they cry, “Good Lord.”) Henry, known as Henrietta or “Onion” to Brown and his ragtag army, narrates the story in a frontier vernacular that is by turns hilarious, bawdy, and wise. Her sharpest insights are on race and slavery, and they’re as valid today as they were a century and a half ago. No one, black or white, slave or free, gets a free ride from Henrietta Shackleford, including Henrietta Shackleford. Here, for instance, are her thoughts on the lies black people tell themselves: “Fact is, I never knowed a Negro from that day to this but who couldn’t lie to themselves about their own evil while pointing out the white man’s wrong, and I weren’t no exception.” And here’s Henrietta on what it means to be black: “Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day. You know his wants, his needs, and watch him proper. But he don’t know your wants. He don’t know your needs or feelings or what’s inside you, for you ain’t equal to him in no measure. You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog or a shovel or a horse.”
The novel has obvious antecedents in the works of Twain and Cervantes, James Baldwin and William Styron. But its framing device — even its opening lines — owe a debt to another tall tale insinuated from American history, Thomas Berger’s indelible epic of the Indian wars, Little Big Man. That novel purports to be the tape-recorded reminiscences of 111-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man who was snatched by Cheyenne Indians as a boy and grew up straddling the racial divide, living with both Indians and whites, finally fighting alongside Gen. George Armstrong Custer and becoming the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The Good Lord Bird purports to be the reminiscences of 111-year-old Henry Shackleford, written down by a preacher in 1942, then locked away and finally salvaged from a church fire in 1966. Instead of straddling the racial divide, Henry crosses other lines — between male and female, freeman and slave, country rube and city slicker — and he winds up in the heat of battle alongside John Brown, becoming the only black survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry.
Here’s the opening of The Good Lord Bird: “I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years.” And here’s the opening of Little Big Man: “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.” Even the climactic battle scenes share a chapter title: McBride’s is “Last Stand”; Berger’s is “The Last Stand.” (In a follow-up e-mail, McBride acknowledged Berger’s influence, adding that he also drew on the writings of Leon Litwack and Daryl Cumber Dance.)
I don’t buy books or movie tickets based on awards, and I’m proud to be able to say that I bought my copy of The Good Lord Bird before it was nominated for the National Book Award and I finished reading it before the awards ceremony. That’s not to say I’m opposed to book awards. As they long as they connect readers with writers — and sell books — I’m all for them. McBride’s publisher, Riverhead Books, announced that it was printing an additional 45,000 copies of The Good Lord Bird as soon as the award was announced, bringing the number in print to more than 82,000. I hope they sell like Krispy Kremes. James McBride is an important and thrilling writer, and he deserves to be widely read.
None of the above is to denigrate the other four fiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award. As McBride put it, they are all fine writers. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, in particular, struck me as a book that announced the arrival of a major talent. The novel, which roams from the Bonneville salt flats to the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s to the political barricades in Italy, was a stirring expansion of the promise Kushner showed in her 2008 debut, Telex From Cuba, which was also a National Book Award finalist. Both novels exhibit Kushner’s outsized gifts: her ambition, her narrative dexterity, her ability to paint complex characters and put them in motion in vividly imagined historical settings. Whether she’s writing about the First World War, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or the 1970s art scene, Kushner succeeds because she understands how to handle her prodigious historical research. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true does not mean it has a place.”
There were other delights this year. One of the chiefest, because it was so personal, was the publication of Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider’s View of a State Gone Wrong, a sweeping history of the chicanery that has been festering under the state capitol’s green dome in Harrisburg, Pa., for more than a century. It was written by a veteran shoe-leather reporter named Brad Bumsted, who happens to be the man who took me under his wing and taught me the reporter’s craft at the daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, Pa., back in the 1970s. As I wrote in my essay about Keystone Corruption, “Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on — not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.”
Though it was published late last year, I’ve got to mention a gem of a book that should burnish the reputation of a writer who has written five novels that are classics, even though too few people have read them. Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, edited by Jay Jennings, is a great teeming smorgasbord of Portis’s journalism, travel writing, short stories, drama and memoir. The book also includes a rare interview with Portis and tributes from admirers, including Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, and Donna Tartt. In addition to its abundant wit and wisdom, this book is virtually a connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in newspaper city rooms in Tennessee, Arkansas and New York. I hope it will attract new readers to Portis’s novels, Norwood, True Grit, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and Gringos.
Another writer who deserves a wider audience is Nick Turse, who produced a magisterial work of history this year called Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Turse argues, persuasively and chillingly, that the mass rape, torture, mutilation ,and slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was not an aberration — not a one-off atrocity called My Lai — but rather the systematized policy of the American war machine. This book’s lessons, like James McBride’s insights on race, are as valid today as they were when America was blundering its way to a shameful military disaster four decades ago.
A pleasant surprise landed in my mailbox in April — a handsome new paperback edition of They Don’t Dance Much, the only novel James Ross published in his lifetime, now widely regarded as the progenitor of “country noir.” This new edition, published by Mysterious Press, includes a foreword by Daniel Woodrell, a Ross acolyte who says he first read the novel in the 1970s because George V. Higgins “vouched for it as both literature and a good time.” A funny, bloody, world-wise tale of violent doings at a North Carolina roadhouse during the Depression, the book was published in 1940 to high praise from Flannery O’Connor, among others, but it sold poorly and soon disappeared. A new edition appeared in the 1970s, attracting a new generation of fans, including Woodrell. And now, another three and a half decades after the second edition, we have a third. As Woodrell writes, “They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.”
Last but far from least, this year the Irish writer Kevin Barry followed up his blistering novel, City of Bohane, with an equally strong collection of stories called Dark Lies the Island. The man uses the English language like a musical instrument. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: You must read Kevin Barry.
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1. Wisdom in the Wit
If you share my fascination with the mysterious ways writers get made, you’ll be thrilled by a new book called Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany. Edited by a long-time Portis devotee, the Arkansas-based writer Jay Jennings, this collection is a virtual connect-the-dots diagram of how Portis the novelist was forged in the newsrooms of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Arkansas Gazette and the New York Herald Tribune, the papers where Portis worked as a reporter and columnist from the late 1950s until the mid-1960s. After a year as the Herald Tribune’s London correspondent, Portis left newspapering in 1964 and went back home to Arkansas to set up shop as a novelist. Over the next quarter-century, he produced five novels that are universally regarded, by those who bothered to read them, as classics.
The move — up? — from journalism to fiction puts Portis in good company. The list of American novelists and short story writers whose careers were hatched in the clattering typhoon of a newspaper city room is both long and lustrous. It includes, to name a few, Twain, Hemingway, Dreiser, Steinbeck, Ring Lardner, Margaret Mitchell, Tom Wolfe (a colleague of Portis’s at the Herald Tribune), and the criminally under-appreciated Ward Just. Now, thanks to dogged Jay Jennings, we can add Charles Portis to the list.
Here’s how Wolfe described his former colleague’s transition from journalist to novelist: “Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific…. A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”
Wolfe’s trademark hyperventilation is meant to imply that it’s unthinkable that anyone could write successful novels in a backwater like Arkansas. The truth is that novelists can work absolutely anywhere, and more than a few people think they’re better off far away from the media hum, high cost of living, and obsessive mirror gazing that go on in places like Wolfe’s adopted hometown of New York City. Besides, Portis didn’t write fiction about Arkansas; he wrote fiction out of Arkansas.
In his introduction to Escape Velocity, Jennings cites, chapter and verse, the many instances when Portis’s funny, sharply observed — and occasionally heroic — newspaper reporting presaged his fiction. Jennings rightly notes that Portis was blessed with two tools vital to every successful reporter and novelist: an ear for the music of spoken language, and an eye for illuminating physical details. So in an article about a PR stunt by a gaggle of Memphis Jaycees dressed up in Confederate uniforms, Portis reports that one of them was “wearing a Harry Truman shirt and Japanese sandals.” It is precisely the sort of detail Portis would make up, by the long ton, in his fiction.
At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Alabama, Portis watched the flames from two enormous crosses lick the night sky. “There were a lot of bugs in the air, too,” he wrote, “knocking against the crosses and falling into open collars.” Surely Portis was remembering that scene when he wrote these lines about Norwood Pratt’s family in his first novel:
They later moved to a tin-roof house that was situated in a gas field under a spectacular flare that burned all the time. Big copper-green beetles the size of mice came from all over the Southland to see it and die in it. At night their little toasted corpses pankled down on the tin roof.
Though it’s not mentioned in Escape Velocity, I feel sure Portis was forced to sit through some hellish gatherings of Southern bluebloods during his stint as a reporter in Little Rock. This description of an elderly lady in Norwood, with its mention of an obscure fallen hero of the Confederacy, has the ring of lived experience:
She claimed descent from the usurper Cromwell and she read a long paper once on her connections at a gathering of Confederate Daughters, all but emptying the ballroom of the Albert Pike Hotel in Little Rock. This was no small feat considering the tolerance level of a group who had sat unprotesting through two days of odes and diaries and recipes for the favorite dishes of General Pat Cleburne.
The following description of the media mob that descended on Little Rock in 1959, for the reopening of the public schools two years after they’d been shut by tensions over integration, captures Portis’s scorn for his fellow journalists: “They came early to Hall High School, about 100 of them, and stood around in little groups of wilted Dacron and damp mustaches, chattering and picking each others’ brains. The photographers diddled with their cameras and shot everything in sight. The reporters engaged in small talk, shop talk and speculation, occasionally taking notes on nothing.”
Anyone who has worked as a newspaper reporter covering a non-news event, as I have, will tell you that there’s wisdom embedded in this wit. But there was nothing funny about the way Portis ended his account of a 1962 boiler explosion that killed 21 workers, mostly young women, in a New York Telephone Company building: “A pair of high-heeled shoes stood upright in a bare spot where there must have been a desk. A disembodied phone was on the floor ringing, its little red extension light winking. I wondered who was calling but I did not answer it.”
Portis’s most impressive, even astounding, journalism was his coverage of civil rights unrest in the South for the Herald Tribune. One Saturday night in May of 1963 he was in Bessemer, Ala., covering the aforementioned Ku Klux Klan rally — a dangerous assignment given the Klan’s hatred for the news media, especially a reporter from the Yankee snake pit of New York City. After returning to his hotel in Birmingham, Portis and other reporters were jolted by the “dull whoomp” of an explosion. They rushed four blocks to the damaged Gaston Motel in time to see the birth of a long night of rioting. Portis dodged thrown bottles and bricks, even the police department’s armored vehicle, while gathering material. The next day, working under brutal deadline pressure, he filed a lyrical, vivid story of nearly 2,000 words, along with a sidebar about the Klan rally that included this wry passage:
One of the favorite speakers was a man in red who warned of sickle-cell anemia, “a deadly organism lurking in all nigger blood.”
“If so much as one drop of nigger blood gets in your baby’s cereal,” he said, “the baby will surely die in one year.” He did not explain how he thought a negro would come to bleed in anyone’s cereal.
But Portis reserved his most withering scorn for the sidebar’s closing lines: “By 10:30 p.m. one of the crosses had collapsed and the other was just smoldering. Everyone drifted away and the grand dragon of Mississippi disappeared grandly into the Southern night, his car engine hitting on about three cylinders.”
It is a masterpiece of deadline reporting — of newspaper writing — of writing — that has rarely been equaled in American journalism.
2. Teardrops, Adultery, Diesel Trucks
In addition to these revelatory newspaper articles, Escape Velocity contains travel writing, four short stories, a “one-off” memoir, a play, a rare interview, and tributes from Roy Blount Jr., Ed Park, Ron Rosenbaum, Donna Tartt, and Wells Tower.
The interview, a long conversation between Portis and fellow Gazette alumnus Roy Reed, will delight fans who have become accustomed to Portis’s maddening reticence. Here, for once, he opens up, talking about some of the prosaic stories he covered in addition to the school integration wars — “State Fair stories, murders, ice storms…a big cock-fighting meet in Garland County.” When Reed asks what got Portis interested in studying journalism in the first place, he replies, “I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.”
While that interview and the newspaper writing are, for me, the meat of the book, there are tasty bits throughout, including a travel piece called “The New Sound from Nashville,” which was the cover story of the Saturday Evening Post on Feb. 12, 1966, a few months before Portis’s first novel came out. I approached this article more as a fact checker than as a casual reader, for I had worked as a morning-drive disc jockey in Nashville in the 1980s, and I like to think I know a few things about the place. I was eager to see if Portis’s reporting rang true. He won me over with his opening:
Nashville, the Athens of the South, is home to Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and at least half a dozen other colleges, as well as a symphony orchestra, a concrete replica of the Parthenon and a downtown beer joint called Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Tootsie’s is where the country music people hang out — those who don’t object to beer joints…. On Saturday nights, performers on the Grand Ole Opry step out the stage door and cross an alley and go in the back door of Tootsie’s to get aholt of themselves between sets with some refreshing suds.
Tootsie’s was still in business when I lived in Nashville, though the Opry had decamped from nearby Ryman Auditorium to a glittering new palace way out on Briley Parkway. Portis’s sketch of Tootsie’s was still valid nearly two decades after he wrote it: “Tootsie’s is like a thousand other beer joints in the South with such names as Junior’s Dew Drop Inn and Pearl’s Howdy Club, and a certain type of country boy feels right at home there, whether he has $250,000 in his pocket or just came in on the bus from Plain Dealing, La., with a guitar across his back and white cotton socks rolled down in little cylinders atop his grease-resistant work shoes. And a song in his heart about teardrops, adultery, diesel trucks.”
This bus rider from Louisiana hints at Portis’s understanding of the central fact of Nashville: by 1966 the city was already on its way to becoming what it is today, a songwriter’s town. I knew dozens of songwriters just like that guy from Plain Dealing, La., with his white cotton socks and his grease-resistant work shoes. One of them lived downstairs from me — a lot of late-night beer drinking and guitar thwanking and unpromising singing. “At one time, in true folk tradition,” Portis writes, “just about every country singer wrote his own songs…. The singer-songwriter is still very much around — Roger Miller sings his own material — but in recent years there has been a proliferation of nonperforming writers. It is a precarious trade.”
While I was living on 17th Avenue in Nashville, the singer Lacy J. Dalton had a hit song about the dreamers of this precarious dream then flocking to nearby 16th Avenue, otherwise known as Music Row. Went like this:
From the corners of the country,
From the cities and the farms,
With years and years of livin’
Tucked up underneath their arms,
They walked away from everything
Just to see a dream come true.
So God bless the boys
Who make the noise
On 16th Avenue.
Another thing Portis got exactly right is the deep gully that separates the citizens of Nashville from the country music crowd. “The Athenians of the South go one way, and the country music people another,” he writes. “Less than 10 percent of the Opry audiences come from the Nashville area. Middle-class Nashvillians, anxious lest they be mistaken for rubes, are quick to inform the visitor that they have never attended the show. It is not for them, this hoedown.”
I attended the Opry just once — with a backstage pass from a keyboard player I knew. I did not encounter Loretta Lynn, as Portis did. She told him all about her recent trip to Europe, then pleaded, “Put in your article about how bad the toilet paper is over there. I wish you could see it, hun, you wouldn’t believe it.”
On the night I attended the Opry, I got invited onto Mel Tillis’s idling tour bus between sets. Mel was drinking a can of Stroh’s beer and playing poker with some of the boys from his backup band, The Statesiders. Mel and I were introduced, and we chatted for a while about the screenplays we were writing. He was collaborating with Roy Clark; I was going solo. The ice broken, I ventured the opinion that Porter Wagoner, another performer that night, sounded like a drowning duck.
“S-s-s-say what you w-w-w-w-w-wanna say about Porter’s s-s-singin,” Mel replied in his famous stammer, “but he’s g-got the b-b-b-b-biggest d-dick in country music.”
The drummer flung his cards in the air and fell to the floor of the bus, cackling till he had a coughing fit. I didn’t have the wits to ask Mel how he knew about the size of Porter Wagoner’s penis. This is a true story. I feel sure Charles Portis, who has been backstage at the Opry, would believe it in a New York minute.
3. I Can’t Breathe!
In his introduction, Jennings remarks that another of Escape Velocity’s travel pieces, “An Auto Odyssey Through Darkest Baja,” showcases all the elements that make Portis’s writing so unique and timeless: “unpretentious diction, an expert ear for the spoken word, deep knowledge worn lightly, stoic acceptance of trying circumstances, skill with internal combustion engines, and more pure reading pleasure than I’d enjoyed in a long time.” I would argue that deep knowledge worn lightly is the rarest and most valuable of these virtues. Skill with internal combustion engines should not be underestimated, as in this piece of high praise for a smooth-running Buick Invicta: “The engine was idling but making no more noise than a rat peeing on a sack of cotton.”
The “Auto Odyssey” article was the result of a 1966 roadtrip Portis and a buddy took from Los Angeles to La Paz, located near the tail end of “that empty brown peninsula” known as Baja California. They rode in a “rat-colored 1952 Studebaker half-ton pickup.” Again, this crazy mission roused the fact checker in me, for I have also driven the grueling length of the Baja peninsula — as the wheelman on a used-up Isuzu Trooper, carrying a German film crew from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas as they shot a travel documentary.
I can report that Portis nails the surreal experience — the heat, the dust, the tendency for tires to blow out on the washboard side roads (the main road was paved all the way when I made the trip, a major improvement over the conditions Portis encountered in the 1960s); the tendency for motor vehicles to throw up their hands and quit under such trying conditions; the fact that the empty brown peninsula is full of colorful characters (including one we found living alone in a teepee in a canyon next to a gigantic ceramic iguana); the fact that everyone you meet is a mechanic who is happy to work on your rig but never quite seems to fix it. (Travel advisory: the citizens of Cuba are much better shade-tree mechanics.)
Now that Jennings has gathered together this magnificent miscellany, I say it’s time for him to follow it up with a chrestomathy of Portis-isms. It would be easy to fill a volume with the names of the characters, places, business establishments, clothing items, food, shopping lists, motor vehicles, aircraft, firearms, and tourist attractions sprinkled like hot ingots throughout Portis’s fiction and non-fiction.
Here are the names of just a few of his characters: Ray Midge, Sherman Lee Purifoy, Norwood Pratt, Lamar Jimmerson, Dub Polton, Professor Cezar Golescu, President Eutropio Melanoma, Rooster Cogburn, Dr. Reo Symes, Whit and Adele Gluters, Grady Fring the Kredit King, and the midget Edmund B. Ratner, the world’s smallest perfect man. The heroic members of Fox Company in the Korean War short story, “I Don’t Talk Service No More,” are named Sgt. Zim, Neap, Dill, Vick, Bogue, Ball, and Sipe. Sounds like a law firm staffed by lunatics. Yet here lies the key to Portis’s success as a novelist: he feels tremendous tenderness for every one of his characters, like the forbearing father of some unruly but loveable brood.
Here’s a pair of signs that Portis says should have been alternately flashing outside a motel called the Ominato Inn where he once stayed:
NOT QUITE A DUMP
AT DUMP PRICES
And, finally, here’s a smorgasbord from a 1992 short story called “Nights Can Turn Cool in Viborra.” It’s the story of Chick Jardine, “winner of five gold Doobie Awards for travel writing!”, and how he hooks up with Jason and Mopsy Crimm on the Tessair Fokker flight into that paradise known as Viborra, where they stay at the deluxe Pan-Lupus Hotel. The travel writer and the tourists hunt for bargains on “belts, yo-yos, fishnet tank tops, heavy woolen shower curtains, and tortoise-shell flashlights.” They admire “the slavering ferocity of the women gnawing on leather (to soften it) at the Arses Lupus Belt and Purse Co-op.” They enjoy a leisurely stroll along the bay front promenade, where, Chick reports, “We ate flavored ices and watched the children clubbing rat fish in the shallows.”
Chick offers the Crimms some savvy tips for enjoying Carnival in Viborra: “Wear casual clothes…beware the melon ambush…keep a sharp lookout for boulders and burning tires rolling down the hillside streets.” Like Portis, Chick holds his fellow members of the fourth estate in less than the highest regard: “We went to the bar to kill some time and found it filled with English travel writers in suede shoes and speckled green suits. What a scene! They were laughing and scribbling and asking how to spell ‘ogive’ and brazenly cribbing long passages of architectural arcana from their John Ruskin handbooks, which are issued with their union cards.”
All this from one little bitty nine-page short story. Imagine what Jay Jennings could do if he mined the entire Portis oeuvre! What a scene! What a book! Or, to quote Ring Lardner, another journalist who tried his hand at fiction: I can’t breathe!