Monday, March 25, 2013

James Conaway's "Nose"

Way back in 1993, James Conaway published his memoir MEMPHIS AFTERNOONS. Not long after that, he came to Memphis for what was then the River City Writers series of lectures at the University of Memphis. I went to a reading and signing of the book, and we later met for drinks at Old Zinnie's in Midtown. I was writing then, though I never would have said of myself, "I'm a writer." It was all too new for me, I was an unfocused and gangly 23-year-old, still green on the vine. But I wrote every day and I told Jim this and he told me that, if that were the case, then I was already far ahead of many of the graduate students he'd taught. He implored me to continue. I didn't ask him to read anything I'd written and, blessedly, he didn't ask to see any. I can't imagine what I might have been working on then, but know for a fact it would have gone down bitterly, with an aftertaste of youth and angst throughout.

Nose by James Conaway
Jim advised me to go on writing daily and yet I did not. Things happened in the intervening years, movement, a business was bought and sold, kids were born and, for a time, I stopped writing altogether. I lost whatever advantage I may have had by simply putting my pencil down. And then I started back, wrote some short stories, some journalism, a few novel manuscripts, and seventeen years later I would find myself sitting across the table from the novelist Richard Bausch. Over copious glasses of wine, coincidentally, he would bolster the idea in me that a writer must write every day. "Do the work," he would say, and he would also tell me and my fellow Moss workshoppers that the goal was to make it all seem effortless. He said, paraphrasing, to write it and rewrite it and work at it until the reader doesn't even realize he's reading.

I've just finished reading Conaway's latest novel, NOSE (Thomas Dunne Books), and it is effortless. The sense I had while reading it was that I was sitting down with the author in a comfortable bar, sipping wine, and listening to a story being told. The story in this case is of a valley in Northern California where wine, and the subsequent effluvia, is the main cash crop with players going back generations or, in some cases, only days. Les Breeden tumbles into town on a Pacific breeze to work at the area's small newspaper, only to be laid off before that breeze has ceased to blow. He meets some regulars in a bar called the Glass Act and becomes entangled with the wife of Clyde Craven-Jones, the preeminent wine critic. Craven-Jones – CJ, as he's known – has had a mystery bottle of Cabernet left on his doorstep that garners his highest rating. But who left it there? No one comes forward and the hunt for the mystery vintner leads us through a valley peopled by farmers, high society, drunks, scientists, capitalists and immigrants; oenophiles all, their veins flowing with the thick, fruity stuff.

Conaway is knowledgeable in wines and how they come to be, there's no disputing that. His nonfiction bestsellers NAPA and THE FAR SIDE OF EDEN can be consulted if any question to pedigree arises. The trick here is that he doesn't hold that knowledge over us. The danger in a novel such as this is that talk of climate and soil, microbes and fermentation, will bog us down and make the vintage undrinkable. Not the case. It's all there, yet is handled in such a way, with humor and a certain amount of industry self-deprecation, that we don't even realize we're learning something new.

I've read many of Conaway's books and enjoyed them all, but there is a special place on my shelf for MEMPHIS AFTERNOONS, the vine of that memoir being grafted, as it is, with Conaways and Alleys. There is much to love in this new pour as well. There is mystery and some tragedy. There is great dialogue and wit and hope. These are the ingredients necessary to blend a book that is enjoyable, fast-paced, fun and effortless.

Read more at NOSE and at Thomas Dunne.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Because I Said So: History lesson for kids to include what Klan does not stand for

I remember being petrified of the Ku Klux Klan when I was a kid. I would read about it in history books or watch documentaries and the nighttime scenes of hooded figures with burning crosses and ropes were the stuff of nightmares. What they did and represented to African Americans was atrocious enough, but there was something personal to it as well: as students in Catholic school we were told they hated Catholics, and I'm Catholic.

J.P. Alley
The Klan is mixed up in my family's own folklore. Just typing that sentence makes me feel dirty, but at least we're on the anti-Klan side of those stories. My cousin, Dan Conaway, writes a fantastic weekly column for The Memphis Daily News. He wrote about his grandfather, my great-grandfather, J.P. Alley, and his work against the Klan in a column last month (read Dan's column here). I figured there was room for two anti-racism columns in this town and used it all as a springboard for the "Because I Said So" column that ran yesterday.

My kids shouldn't be scared of the Klan. Hell, they shouldn't even know about the Klan other than what they read in textbooks or see in documentaries. It's still hard for me to believe that they're learning about it on the front page of the daily newspaper. Maybe this will be the last time it warrants such real estate. We can hope.

Lesson for kids: What Klan doesn't stand for
It’s been all over the news lately that at the end of this month the Ku Klux Klan plans to march on Memphis. Like any good civic organization staging a rally, or a circus, they’ve applied for and received a permit from the city. And they have presumably tidied themselves up with Tide and some Snuggle fabric softener. It’s always important to make a good first impression.

But this is not their first impression, is it? They’ve been around for far too long. In 1923, my great-grandfather, J.P. Alley, was editorial cartoonist for The Commercial Appeal, and he, along with editor C.P.J. Mooney, used their respective talents to speak out against the KKK. They won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that year.

And now, 90 years later, we’re still talking about this gaggle of radicals? It’s the sort of news story I ignored for a while, hoping it might all just go away, thanks to good, common decency. But it looks as though this stain just won’t wash out.

I enjoy teaching my children about their family history, about the good that their great-great-grandfather did, but in this context it seems a bit ridiculous. As far as civil rights has progressed — right here, in this city set as a stage for the world — to have a conversation about a group of misanthropes hiding cowardly beneath cowls in this day and age is surreal.

This needs to be a time, not to teach children what such a group stands for, but what it is they don’t stand for. Equality. Decency. Common sense. Good, Southern manners.

And then there’s the irony that this current brouhaha is over a park. If there is one place in society where we should be teaching our kids to play fair and get along, it’s in the park. Games of freeze tag and kickball, waiting in line for the slide or a turn at the swing, making friends with strangers so there will be enough for a proper game of flag football. This is what should be happening within our parks.

For this discussion, our opinion on what that specific park on Union Avenue should be named is irrelevant. We’ve progressed a lot in 90 years and there are more civil and expedient ways to debate such a subject than with robed anachronisms.

Living in a house with many children, I’ve learned that lines of communication must be left open, that there are ways to work through any disagreement of territory and ownership. Even the newest parent learns quickly that tantrums are ineffective.

As a parent with some years under my belt, let me assure you that a kid wrapping himself in a bed sheet and shouting his misguided tenets at me would land that kid in time out and not upon a pulpit in front of the courthouse.

On the day of the Klan’s proposed rally, we’ll stay away; there’s no reason to poke a hornet’s nest. Perhaps we’ll take the kids to another park where they can run and play and get to know kids of varying ethnicities. Perhaps there will be a history lesson so that, hopefully, we’re not doomed to repeat our mistakes.

I’ll include a chapter on cowardice and one on standing up for your ideals, and that some clans who claim to be better than others because of the way they look are merely cartoons of themselves.

© 2013 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Long Gone Daddies

LONG GONE DADDIES (John F. Blair, Publisher, 2013) is a book about the road and redemption, trains and beer and long legged women who dance like water and scheme like politicians. It's about all the things that make for a good blues, rock-n-roll or soul song. It's a book about finding that song, and one about the people who search for and find – or don't find – that song.

The first novel by David Wesley Williams is about the men of the Gaunt family, three generations long. You know them – Malcolm, John and Luther – they make up the fault line that runs from Sun Studio to your favorite playlist on iTunes. No matter that they're men of fiction because so are the melody and lyrics. Williams tells the story of Malcolm Gaunt, a man who would be Elvis, destined to record for Sam Phillips until fate intervened that fateful morning. Malcolm's son, John, leaves Scranton, PA, and a good woman, to find his song in Memphis, a city that eventually swallows him whole. Luther takes up with the family guitar, a Cassandra Special Rider, and he and his band, the Long Gone Daddies, make their way through the south to that city on the river.

Along the way, the band meets up with Delia, a woman who would be queen, a woman in search of her own song and her own place nestled on the Billboard charts. She's hitched a ride and is not sure of the language the Daddies speak, exactly who Furry Lewis was or why the fascination with singers who died in small plan crashes. Luther isn't sure why Delia is still there, though he finds out soon enough and the resulting verse threatens to bring the band, and Luther, to its knees.

LONG GONE DADDIES is an anthem to old-style country, blues and rock-n-roll as much as it is an anthem to the muses that made it all so. The muse, in this case, is a lady, and that lady is the city of Memphis. As much as we come to know the Gaunt men and Delia, one of Williams's greatest characters may be the city itself. He writes of her streets and ghosts lovingly, knowledgeably and with a certain amount of awe and respect.

In one chapter late in the book, Luther offers a soliloquy for the city:

" ... I believe in Memphis, the great lost city of sound. I believe it'll come back. I believe there are untold hit songs waiting to be written and sung. I believe the world's leaning toward Memphis, whether it realizes it or not, craning to hear. I believe in the second coming of Otis – maybe he's white this time, and has a fear of flying – and of Elvis – maybe he's black and will refuse to become some ol' carny's movie prop. I believe this city is sad and blue and rather tired at the moment, but there's all manner of crazy shit bubbling under. There always is. The river brings a new supply every day."

It's dramatic and romantic, sure, but songs always are, or should be, and when you read LONG GONE DADDIES, you will hear the music. Williams has a great ear for cadence and his sentences, each a story in its own right, put you in mind of the music and music in  your mind. And he can put you in the Memphis of 1953 just as easily as a Beale Street that's been "... tidied up and tamed, strung up by a short leash and turned into a tourist-beckoning, two block strip of nightclubs: bourbon renewal."

Things happen to Malcolm, John and Luther once they get to Memphis, the city has her way with them, as it has with everyone who came here looking for fame or fortune, or the hook of a song. Lucky for us, she had her way with Williams as well, and its great to finally have his book out here in the airwaves.