Mississippi and the Deep South have spawned oft-perplexing and always fascinating histories, world-class literature, and the roots of almost every genre of American music.
Four recently published tomes take the reader on memorable rides through the heart of Dixie that they will find as memorable as grasping for 6-foot long catfish in the Mississippi River.
William Faulkner began and Larry Brown continued the Mississippi literary tradition of crafting richly drawn, forlorn characters with words so beautifully drawn as if painted with a brush.
Jackson novelist and former railroad worker Howard Bahr’s “Pelican Road” maintains that tradition.
His is a story of the convergence of two railroad men — the long-suffering, memory-challenged freight train engineer, A.P. Dunn, and the memory-haunted World War I vet and deluxe passenger train conductor, Artemus Kane.
Bahr is such an accomplished wordsmith that you will at times forget about the plot in favor of plumbing the psyches of his two tarnished heroes.
That is, after all, what French existentialist novels, and their progeny, Southern literary sagas are all-about — putting character and description ahead of story.
But stay calm and read on; there is quite a 1940’s-era story here, pregnant with enough suspense to keep the reader riveted unto the explosive end. The protagonists’ steam trains are barreling headlong toward each other in a snow storm, one from Meridian and another out of New Orleans. So crank up the fireplace, break open a good French wine, and settle in for your most satisfying literary ride of the season.
Just in time for Mardi Gras, and steaming down a very different track, is another well-written novel by a Mississippi author, Josef Nix.
“Prince Perfect” is the tale of an Ivy League educated, gay young man, Mark, coming out in the Deep South Bible Belt, torn between a “marriage of obligation” to a Southern belle and further exploring his relationship with the radicalized Allen, whose political views about the “bourgeois capitalist pig class enemy” offend practically everyone. Not satisfied with these unusual existential scenarios, Nix throws in another beautifully explored aspect.
“Mark was a nice Jewish boy,” he writes, resident of a small community where “matchmaking yentas practiced their ancient craft” in a land of sweet scented Magnolias and “tall glasses of sweet iced tea.”
Eudora Welty meets Gore Vidal? Perhaps, but Nix’s memorable characters and whip-smart dialogue are the ideal spice for this gumbo that yields its denouement at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. That’s one parade you may not want to miss.
“Mojo Triangle,” a travel guide through the musical landscape of Natchez, Memphis, New Orleans, Nashville and the Mississippi Delta, is the composition of USM grad and renowned Mississippi psychologist Mardi Allen.
Although she offers snippets of where to stay and dine from Nashville to Natchez, this part is hit and miss; she perfectly captures the soul of Indianola’s Delta Interpretive Center and notes the ideal music venues to explore in Memphis, but falls short recommending New Orleans hotels and Greenwood eateries.
But you will learn all you need to know about the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rodgers, Bobby Gentry, Mose Allison and Tammy Wynette, with snippets about every area musician from Lance Bass to Faith Hill to Dolly Parton.
No fan of good music should miss Allen’s course on the subject of Deep South warblers.
‘Mississippi: The Long Hot Summer’
The final entry is a tour of a very different kind, the re-release of sociologist and author William McCord’s, “Mississippi: The Long Hot Summer,” a searing account of a people’s 1960’s struggle for racial justice, and a thought-provoking study of the psychology behind Southern racism.
Here are heroes such as Medgar Evers, whose refusal to return the hate helped move Mississippi forward despite his untimely death, and a host of lesser-known but no less important rebels for this righteous cause.
It is difficult to imagine that such things occurred here barely over a half-century ago, and the absurdity of many era events seem as surreal as they do tragic, as when Fannie Lou Hamer’s bus of prospective voter registrants is pulled over for being painted the wrong color.
Were maids really paid 75 cents for cooking and ironing all day in the oppressive Mississippi heat?
Most fascinating is the sociologist’s theory about the four central beliefs whites held that fueled ongoing racism.
McCord cites them as alleged black inferiority, Communist support of the civil rights movement, God’s purported sanction of white supremacy and the precedence of Mississippi personal ethics over Supreme Court-generated law.
One hopes that centuries from now America will be such a paradise for all that people will wonder whether McCord’s book really belongs in the non-fiction section of bookstores.
MacAdam/Cage (June 9, 2008); 299 pages
Sbpra (Dec. 31, 2015); 166 pages
Sartoris Literary Group (Oct. 16, 2016); 388 pages
‘Mississippi: The Long Hot Summer’
University Press of Mississippi; Reprint edition (Oct. 24, 2016) Civil Rights in Mississippi Series; 232 pages