Fathers and sons, Horse People, and dog days.
Should anyone still have doubts these days about the publishable talent here in Memphis, let this month serve as a good month to put any doubts to rest. And that goes for a range of talents. There’s a new collection of short stories by Cary Holladay. There’s man’s best friend as pictured in the pages of a photography book by Nell Dickerson. Then there’s a debut novel by David Wesley Williams. Let’s start with that novel.
It’s Long Gone Daddies (from North Carolina publisher John F. Blair) by Commercial Appeal sports editor David Williams, but sports has nothing to do with Williams’ multigenerational look at fathers long gone. Memphis music does — from the early 1950s to the late 1990s. Behind all that music: a 1930s Cassandra Special Rider, a guitar with a soulful sound and more curves than the Mississippi.
Ask Malcolm Gaunt of Scranton, Pennsylvania, about “Cassie.” He got hold of her in 1939 and took her down to Memphis with hopes of being just what Sam Phillips at Sun was looking for in 1953: a white guy who could sing black. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s wife, Sara, broods back home.
Ask John Gaunt, who follows in his father’s footsteps (Cassie now in his arms) down to Memphis too but with his own wife and son back in Scranton.
And ask Luther Gaunt. He’s John’s son, Malcolm’s grandson. When Long Gone Daddies opens, Luther and his band mates — a drummer named Buck Walker and an electric guitarist named Jimmy Lee Vine — are rocketed off the road and into an empty Arkansas rice field. The car they’re in: a muddy-brown Merc. The girl singer from Texas, who’s along for the ride: She’s a real piece of work but with stars in her eyes. Her name is Delia Shook, but she’s thinking about changing Shook to Shake.
It’s the Fourth of July 1998 when Luther, Buck, Jimmy Lee, and Delia find themselves stuck in that rice field, but a firework climbing the night sky over rural Arkansas could be Delia herself, who’s ready to burst on the music scene in Nashville. The song that makes her a star in the country-music firmament: one written by Luther but dressed up in the slickest sounds Nashville has to offer. And as for Luther and his band mates: They get to where they’re going, which is Memphis and its music scene, which turns out to be equal parts inspiration and frustration. Leave it to Malcolm Gaunt to settle the score:
“Damnedest place ever was, but I do love it. Memphis slouches and Memphis grins and Memphis is real, in the best and worst ways and most ways in between.”
“Real” in the best and worst ways and most ways in between could sum up the thorny but loving relationship between fathers and sons in Long Gone Daddies, which is rich in character and made richer by the author’s wry way with dialogue and his self-penned song lyrics scattered throughout the narrative. Lyrics on the order of: “I’m an old car battered/ I’m frayed-flag tattered/ Been awhile since I mattered/ to you.”
Which just goes to show: Williams’ winning story, “Memphis Minnie’s Ashes,” in Memphis magazine’s annual fiction contest in 2002 (reprinted in the June 2011 issue) was no fluke. The big surprise here: Though Williams can’t play a note, he sure knows his Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Furry Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, whose spirits haunt these pages. Hank Williams’ too, the man who sang “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” and the main man to teach David Wesley Williams his way around a story of heartache and heartbreak.
Nelle Fenton would be a good woman to have around if the subject is horses. She can ride (even sidesaddle), she can jump fences (and thrill at the prospect), she can fox-hunt (with the winning tails as trophies), she can breed (a fine thoroughbred), and she can deliver (a foal).
But can this Pennsylvania debutante turned mistress of the manor in Virginia horse country act as faithful wife and caring mother? In her own manner, she can. Meaning that Nelle, a woman with little patience for people in general and less patience with the foolhardy, does indeed remain married to Richard Fenton an entire adult lifetime, despite her extramarital affairs and private disappointments. And as for her seven sons: They do indeed crave their mother’s affection (as Nelle herself craved her formidable mother’s), but even Nelle would admit that her maternal instincts are no match for the company of horses and her love of the rolling Virginia countryside.
Why, then, does Nelle Fenton make for such a compelling character in the nine linked stories that make up Horse People (Louisiana State University Press)? Cary Holladay, the author and a teacher in the creative-writing program at the University of Memphis, is the reason. She knows this territory’s history, its class distinctions (rich and poor, white and black), its plants and wildlife and seasons as only a native Virginian and keen observer can. An observer who can recall the popular term for a partial stroke: “the halfway sickness.” Who knows, according to folklore, that a garden turtle won’t let up on his bite until he hears it thunder. Who remembers the solution to sea winds whipping up a woman’s skirt: coins sewn into the hem. And who especially understands what makes a woman such as Nelle tick — from girlhood in 1861 (in Holladay’s opening story, “The Bridge”) to the collection’s closing story (“Horse People”).
How long can Nelle Fenton go on, her surviving family had been asking. Until 1976, age 93, is what readers of Horse People learn.
With the advent of air-con- ditioning and the designs of most homebuilders, “porch sitting, one of the most significant pastimes of Southern culture, has since gone the way of hand-churned ice cream and the quilting bee,” Memphian Nell Dickerson writes, and she mourns the loss. But tell that to the canines sitting pretty in Porch Dogs (like Long Gone Daddies, from John F. Blair, Publisher), Dickerson’s collection of more than 60 handsome color photos.
House dogs, yard dogs, shop dogs, swing and bench dogs, water-loving dock dogs, top dogs (who sit for their portrait from second-floor perches), and under dogs (cooling beneath the porch): These are Dickerson’s categories. No need, though, to bother Biscuit, Cleopatra, Teeny Baby, Liza Jane, and Gotcha with name-calling. They’re in hound heaven on the porches that still stand throughout the South — whether, in Dickerson’s photographs, we’re in Memphis, Mississippi, New Orleans, Alabama, or Charleston. And true to Dickerson’s abiding concern for historic preservation, this makes Porch Dogs a dual-purpose project, one that’s been eight years in the making. From grand doorways to humble storefronts, these are splendid examples of the South’s architectural heritage stretching back to the late eighteenth century.
And that’s where you’ll find Memphis — the dog, not the city. She’s a dappled Deutsch Kurzhaar at home in Bingham, Tennessee, and proud as can be on a porch circa 1795.