Strange Days

Introducing Sidney Thompson: writer and, for the time being, car salesman.

"Write stories that unnerve your readers," author Barry Hannah told his class at Ole Miss. "Stories no one has quite seen before."

So Sidney Thompson, a onetime student of Hannah's in Oxford and the author of a powerful debut short-story collection called Sideshow (River City Publishing), did.

For proof, see "The Floater," the story of an unmarried, 33-year-old, Mississippi sheetrock installer named Larry. He's mourning the death of his two beloved hunting dogs, but when the story opens, he's eyeing another dog, a doomed poodle named Puddles, which he rescues from an animal shelter. He's also got his eye on that poodle's owner when she shows up on Larry's property only to discover that her dog is once again gone. You the reader know the shocking reason why. And you the reader won't doubt it when Puddle's distraught owner makes a fast exit down Larry's drive. Some things a "floater" -- whose job is to mud in the "uncomely aspects" in a wall of sheetrock -- just can't disguise, and in Larry, there's no disguising the raw edges and rough seams that could use some work. By story's end, he knows it. What to do about it? An open question.

No question: Some things a senior in high school can't help knowing, and in Thompson's equally unnerving "The Voyeur," that student is Bruce, and his parents are calling their marriage quits. This puts him metaphorically and literally up a tree, a choice spot for Bruce to spy on his seductive mother's bedroom activities and to uncover some clues to his father's extramarital habits. But elements of incest and evidence of homosexuality aside, Bruce is happy to make it to the prom and graduate with honors. You think that's strange? Take a good look at any audience of strangers and wonder. Bruce does. As does the narrator who haunts the Greyhound bus station in Memphis in "The Chameleon" or the air-brush artist who paints tourist portraits (when he isn't manufacturing 20-dollar bills) on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in "The Counterfeiter."

But you're looking for a classical education and something odder still? Consider Thompson's "The Romanticist and the Classicist," where a father and son in rural Mississippi trade references to Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton, and Shaw even as the father fires multiple shots into his wife's lover.

Or see "The Aristotelian," where the superintendent of a Midtown Memphis apartment complex argues market theory with a 700-pound, bed-ridden tenant even as he nightly beds that tenant's willing wife.

Even Don and Harold, the husbands in "The Husbands," are something of a classic case -- closet cases, if you must know, one drunken night. Best for readers to keep an open mind. Don and Harold do. Sidney Thompson in Sideshow does. It allows him to "play with boundaries," as he said in an interview from coastal Alabama, where he lives with his wife, novelist Jennifer Paddock.

"That's what fiction should do," Thompson adds. "Life is a daily sideshow, and too often we try to ignore it, try not to face up to it. But I want to keep the writing lively as well -- surprise myself and the reader too. And if readers don"t want to go along with me, maybe it's somewhere they should go. I write to learn something, whether it's about a character, a place, or a job."

He's proving the point these days in Fairhope, Alabama, where Thompson sells new and used cars. (A real "circus" -- and inspiration -- is how he describes both his customers and colleagues.) But he spent more than a decade teaching high school and college English here in Memphis and in Mobile after graduating from the University of Memphis. He went on to earn his M.F.A. at the University of Arkansas.

The son of U of M faculty members Charles Lamar Thompson and Julia Hall, Thompson today admits to missing his hometown -- its "feel," he says, "that funky, funny, frightening feel . . . where the urban and the rural, the cultured and the unrefined, privileged and poor, and black and white all come together to surprise."

The same could be said for much of Sideshow and especially its tender opening story, "The Man Who Never Dies." The primary setting is the Mid-South Fair, and anyone who's been there will recognize what Thompson makes of it: the fair's crowds and carnies and Midway. It's here, at a game of skill involving the throw of a football, that an adult son decides to make peace with his dying father by making a surprise punt and then a real run for it. Nothing unnerving about it. More like a pitch-perfect resolution to introduce you to the talents of a Memphis writer, born and bred, by the name of Sidney Thompson.

Shelf Life

Points South: "It's not if," so the saying went in New Orleans. "It's when" -- "if" being the possibility of a hurricane causing catastrophic flooding of that city built below sea level. "When," we now know, was August 29, 2005, the date Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and slammed the coast of Mississippi. Almost a year to the day after the disaster, Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley penned the author's note to The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (William Morrow), at close to 700 pages, Brinkley's monumental history of the natural and man-made events that led to the loss of so many lives, the suffering of so many individuals, and property damage in the billions of dollars. For some idea of this blow-by-blow account, consider the fact that Brinkley restricts his coverage to a single week: August 27th to September 3rd. What he does not restrict is his criticism of those he singles out for their wishful thinking, political infighting, inexcusable in-competence, or just plain ignorance. (Reelect-ed mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, are you listening?) The book is a highly readable, and necessary, report that is decades away from being the end of the story.

Points East: Donald Antrim is a New Yorker known for his fiction, but his late mother Louanne, with family in the mountains of East Tennessee, was known for her high spirits dampened by alcoholism. The combination made for an uneasy life between mother and son, a life rendered unsparingly in Antrim's The Afterlife (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). But if you think this sounds like standard memoir material, think again. There's nothing standard about Antrim's outstanding way with words in this beautifully rendered, disturbing account of strange days indeed.


Founding Mothers

by Cokie Roberts

I read Founding Mothers in 2004 with equal measures of amazement, frustration, and satisfaction. I reread it recently, in the paperback version, with renewed awe for what these women accomplished.

They had no rights. They owned no property. Their husbands or fathers essentially owned them. But the mothers, wives, and daughters of the American Revolution helped shape this nation with their wit, wiles, and wisdom -- not to mention a capacity for work that would bring 21st-century Americans to our knees.

Cokie Roberts' bestseller weaves individual stories into a vivid panorama of colonial times. We're familiar with some of the main characters, including the dignified and indomitable Martha Washington and the courageous and candid Abigail Adams.

But also important to the colonies' future were less-heralded women, including Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who took over management of her father's three South Carolina rice plantations at the ripe old age of 16. When she wasn't overseeing the planting and harvesting of crops, or educating her sister and slave children, she experimented with growing the blue dye used in military uniforms. She not only succeeded in harvesting indigo but distributed the seeds to other planters. By 1747, the plant had become a substantial export, with more than one million pounds shipped to England, and a major source of wealth to the colony.

Another woman who took on her man's business was Deborah Read Franklin. While husband Ben went on his merry way in Europe, charming the ladies and -- give him credit -- creating a new country, he virtually abandoned his wife for the last 17 years of their marriage, rarely responding to her faithfully written letters and ignoring her pleas for him to come home.

Meanwhile Deborah ran the colonies' postal service, expanded her husband's print shop into franchises, invested in real estate, oversaw the building of their new house, raised Ben's illegitimate son and their daughter Sally, and defended her home against a gun-wielding mob angry at Ben about the Stamp Act. After her death, Franklin wrote of Deborah: "I everyday become more sensible of the greatness of that loss that cannot be repaired."


Other women light the pages of this book: Mercy Otis Warren, who penned plays and pamphlets that skewered the Tories and called the colonists to arms, and Esther Edwards Burr, mother of Aaron, and daughter of the Presbyterian minister Jonathan Edwards. Through Esther's letters we feel the toll that endless labor -- spinning, scrubbing, whitewashing, ironing, child-bearing, child-rearing, visiting the sick, and entertaining round after round of visiting ministers -- took on this young woman. At one point Esther sums up her state: "Too gloomy to write . . . felt like an old, dead horse."

With meticulous research and skillful narrative, Roberts gives readers striking insights into the lives of women who managed properties, raised children, helped and advised their husbands, and journeyed to visit friends in distant towns -- all in a day without phones, email, or SUVs.

-- Marilyn Sadler

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