Howard Bahr and Christian Patterson have a good look at the everyday.
I always wanted to be a railroad man," Howard Bahr says. "I was enamored of it from infancy."
So that's what Bahr became: a railroad man after spending his earliest years in Meridian, Mississippi (within sight of the Southern Railway yards), and after serving in Vietnam. From 1968 to 1973, he worked as a yard clerk on the Illinois Central and the Southern, and he worked as a brakeman on the Missouri Pacific. But after five years, a fellow railroad worker and good friend suggested — no, ordered — Bahr to go to college, and that's what Bahr did: He majored in English at the University of Mississippi and went on to get his master's degree there, teach there, and serve as curator at Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home in Oxford.
Then came The Black Flower, Bahr's novel of the everyday and inner lives of the soldiers fighting in the Battle of Franklin during the Civil War. The book was a critical and popular success in 1998 and was named by The New York Times as Notable Book of the Year. Another Civil War novel, The Year of Jubilo, followed two years later and also was named by the Times as a Notable Book. The Judas Field (2006) revisited the Civil War too, but for Bahr's newest novel, Pelican Road (MacAdam/Cage), the battlefield is France during World War I, and it's secondary to another subject. He turns in Pelican Road, as he had as a young man, to the rails, which presented its own challenges.
"I wanted to write what it was like on the railroad," Bahr says. "But it was difficult to write without it sounding like a child's adventure book. There was also a problem with the language — the lingo of the railroad: the technical, esoteric terms. I decided not to overexplain. I trust the reader." Trust Bahr to describe the everyday details of life on the rails with the greatest immediacy.
But in Pelican Road, this isn't just every day. It's Christmas Eve, and the year is 1940. What happens on the railway line between Meridian and New Orleans (the 200-mile "Pelican Road" of the title) isn't everyday either. It's the day when two trains, heading in opposite directions, are headed, by accident, to meet.
There's a great deal more to Pelican Road than the scenes leading to that climactic run-in. There's first and foremost a portrait of the twilight era of steam-engine train travel. There are personal (and universal) meditations on the nature of time and on the question of duty and right action, whether that action be on a battlefield of the Great War or on (and off) a mid-twentieth-century rail line — days, in other words, long gone.
Was writing about World War I markedly different from writing about the Civil War?
"No," Bahr says. "I've said everything I could say about the Civil War, but the experience of war is the same. Only the weapons change."
Does Bahr miss working on the railroad?
"Not now," he says. "If this were 60 or 70 years ago, I'd be satisfied to be a railroad man all my life. But the changes have been too great."
And does Bahr, who now teaches English composition and creative writing at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, miss Oxford, where he spent years as a student and teacher?
"No," he says again. "Every time I go back I'm appalled. It's so different from the town I knew. It's kind of sad — the tidal wave of money that's swept Oxford in the past few years. What it's left behind is something I don't want to deal with.
"Meridian itself is almost all gone. Same old story: Everything I knew has disappeared."
you may have seen it, but have you had a look at it? A good look at the jukebox inside the Lamplighter bar in Midtown? Or the fluorescent lighting inside Cozy Corner, the barbecue joint on North Parkway? Or Skateland roller rink as seen from its parking lot?
Christian Patterson not only had a good look: he had his camera, and he made photographs of the above scenes. Then he exhibited those photos in a show at the Power House in Memphis in 2005. And that's not all he showed. Picture a stove with its gas burners going full-blast and a discarded sign above that reads "Revelation 21: 8." That's the stove inside Patterson's apartment when he lived in Memphis, and the photograph is one of 47 color plates — including those shots of the Lamplighter, Cozy Corner, and Skateland — inside Patterson's Sound Affects, the photographer's first monograph, published in Germany and available through Dashwood Books.
Patterson, who grew up in Wisconsin, is now based in New York (Brooklyn, to be exact), but he was in Memphis from 2002 to 2005 in order to work with an internationally known photographer he greatly admires: William Eggleston. The admiration (and affinity) shows in Patterson's work. Sound Affects — with an introduction by Memphian Robert Gordon and an essay by Susanna Ott — focuses on the everyday and often overlooked, the offhandedness of the subject matter an invitation to closer scrutiny. And if the subjects at first don't grab you, Patterson's eye for color — neon-bright to downright lurid — will.
How does a self-taught photographer go from office worker and musician in New York City to assistant at the Eggleston Trust in Memphis?
As Patterson told interviewer Peter Feldhaus of the Sonic Blog this past May, the move into photography was a "very natural, organic process," and it was Eggleston's work that "really blew [him] away."
So in 2001, at the age of 30, Patterson visited Memphis and met with the famed photographer and his son Winston. Then he made a "strong case" to work as assistant and archivist at the Eggleston Trust. A planned stay of six months ended up lasting three years.
"In Memphis, time moves a bit more slowly," Patterson told Feldhaus. "You can see and feel a certain history" — a musical history if you're tuned into, as Patterson is, to what he calls "the musicality of everyday life."
That "musicality," according to the images collected in Sound Affects, extends to a woman in curlers at a Memphis laundromat, an alleyway near Bill's Twilight Lounge, the twin white-washed signs in the driveway of the Summer Twin drive-in, the candy-colored streamers of a used-car lot, and the red-caped wonder himself: Robert Raiford of Raiford's Hollywood Disco.
For more information on Christian Patterson and on Sound Affects, go to his website, christianpatterson.com. The book, which was nominated this year for a New York Photo Award, comes in a limited edition of 700 copies and a special, slipcased edition that is signed and numbered. To order, go to dashwoodbooks.com.