Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Look At The Billion Year Old Birdie

When I first moved to Midtown Memphis in 1989 or '90, the very first day I was driving to my new apartment on Belvedere with the key pressed in my sweaty little hand, and while stopped at the corner of that street and Union Ave., I saw an old man vomiting on that apple pie slice of grass right there at the Shell service station. It was the middle of the day and I remember thinking to myself, "Welcome to Midtown."

I've just finished reading a couple of books: "Look at the Birdie" by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte Press, 2009), and "We Are Billion Year Old Carbon: A Tribal-Love-Rock-Novel Set in the Sixties on an Outpost Planet Called Memphis" by Corey Mesler (Livingston Press, 2005). I am embarrassed to say that this is the first book of Mesler's that I've read. It won't be the last. He evokes, in his stories populated with characters such as Johnny Niagara, Camel Jeremy Eros, Madame Sabat and Sweetness Enlight, the mythical Midtown Memphis. He conjures up the feelings I had as a nineteen-year-old watching a man give up his breakfast on the nexus of town, taking late night walks to the Pig, past Decadence Manor and in the near vicinity of The World Famous Antenna Club, an all-night doughnut shop and a small graveyard. There were things going on that were unseen then, yet they were there all the same, in apartments that abutted the sidewalk, their one window that wasn't painted shut blaring music or television, love and argument. There were things within the Pig not to be seen anywhere else or believed by your own eyes.

Mesler captures it all in a time before my time, the Memphis of the sixties, a time of the Bitter Lemon coffee house and a home-grown counter culture that tends to get buried within the world-changing tales of our city's history. It's a love poem (and there is plenty of poetry throughout this book), not just to a city on the river, but to the geographic and soulful boundaries of Midtown. And it's written to the soundtrack of Captain Beefheart, Buffalo Springfield, Furry Lewis and The Beatles. One surprising and delightful chapter gives us a series of reviews of Beatles LPs, from 1964 and "Meet The Beatles" to 1969's "Let It Be" wherein we witness the reviewer's, Creole Myers (Corey Mesler?), love life fall apart over that span of five years and ten albums. The ever-evolving persona and music of the band hearkening a change within Myers's courting, engagement, marriage and dissolution.

I didn't know what to expect from this book though I expected it to be well-written because I know of Mesler's work ethic. It is exciting for me to have an author with so much out there that I have yet to tap into.

It's difficult not to expect a lot when the author's name is Vonnegut. All I have to do is say the name and my mind is filled with passages from "Bluebeard," "Cat's Cradle," "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Breakfast of Champions." These are old friends who I've visited many, many times over the years. The expectation that Vonnegut will bring the most delicious dish to the table is a given.

However, I'm wary when anything, especially short stories, are published posthumously. Perhaps even more wary in this case because of the ├╝ber-literary name attached to them. Were these stories that were previously passed over by publishers? Did Vonnegut have rejection slips hidden away someplace with these titles attached? Not likely. I imagine he could have called upon any number of publications to print these stories at any time. My guess is he didn't feel they were ready, or they were exercises or, because the author has always seemed like a fairly playful character, simply something with which to amuse himself. Either way, The Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Trust felt it was time for them to see the light of day.

The stories are good. Don't get me wrong, of course they're good. They're just ... different. They put me in mind of some old "Twilight Zone" episodes, replete as they are with a sense of unknown, of dread, and that there is a hand somewhere unseen controlling the players in a scene. And there's a bit of noir here, too, sometimes with a voice more Dashiell Hammett than the Vonnegut we know. A particularly dark story is Ed Luby's Key Club in which a naive and innocent couple out to celebrate their anniversary are caught up in, and falsely accused of a murder. The hopeless spiral downward is one you will feel in your gut and with sweat on your brow. Only a true master, possibly only Vonnegut himself, could accomplish such a feat.

Pick both of these books up for highly engaging and entertaining reads. In fact, pick them both up at Burke's Book Store in Cooper-Young (Midtown).