Heart of the Delta
Discovering the back pages of John Pritchard's world.
photography by Brandon Dill
(page 1 of 6)
Nail Road is a two-lane road that begins south of Horn Lake with subdivisions on either side. Like much of ex-urban Memphis, the sprawl here has forced development that often cuts abruptly into the rural countryside. But as the sidewalks end, and the suburban lots give way to single houses on large shaded lawns, Nail becomes a true country road. Soon, all there is to see are stretches of woods, intermittent with signature green canopies of kudzu.
I traveled down Nail Road one morning last summer with John Pritchard, an English professor I had met in college. Over coffee that morning in midtown Memphis we began talking about the Mississippi Delta, where he grew up.
“Have you ever seen what it looks like in relation to the rest of the topography around here?” John asked me. I told him I’d been through there on I-55.
“55? There’s no Delta on 55,” he told me.
“Then maybe I haven’t been down there that way,” I said.
“Then you need to get into the car, and I need to show it to you immediately.”
John is someone I’m always glad to see.
He’ll greet you with a smile and listen when you tell him how you are. Despite being in his seventies, he keeps a short ponytail and close-trimmed beard and you can find him in seersucker suits in the summer, and woolen knickers and stockings in the winter. He is genteel, raised in a society of manners, and speaks with an accent like fellow Deltan Shelby Foote — something that only adds to his charm. When you visit with him you feel as though you are being adopted into the world he comes from.
But he is far from the provincial stereotype of the small-town world.
John has lived in Memphis for more than 30 years, working as an English professor for most of that time. But the last eight years have changed things a little. Since the mid-2000s, John has won acclaim for two novels set in the Delta, which follow in the Southern literary legacy of Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and John Kennedy Toole, but fall in a place of their own.
The first of these, Junior Ray, was named one of Barnes and Noble’s “Sensational Debuts” in 2005, and the sequel, Yazoo Blues, was given a starred review by Publisher’s Weekly after its release in 2008. Pritchard himself was nominated for the 2009 fiction award by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
I asked John why he wanted to write about the Delta.
“Well, it’s where I’m from,” he says. “It’s what made me.”
John grew up in a house on the town square in pre-casino Tunica. His father was a successful architect, and his extended family is composed of landowners, lawyers, and bankers. He attended Ole Miss, earning a degree in English, but after graduating he moved away from the Delta, never actually to live there again.
“I don’t know exactly how to describe it,” John tells me about his youth. “I wouldn’t say I was rebellious, I just realized that I could not fit the mold. I realized that I could not do what pretty much it looked like I was supposed to do: which was go to Ole Miss, get a law degree, come back here to Tunica, and practice law. I thought: I would rather be dead.”
Throughout his life John has been a news clerk for The New York Times, a sailor, a professor, a sheriff’s deputy, a songwriter, and now a novelist. His life has taken him from New York to California to Cuba during the Castro revolution, and even awarded him with two gold records for songs he wrote in Nashville.
Over the past three decades, Memphis has been Pritchard’s home. He’s taught English at Southwest Tennessee Community College since 1992. Not that he’s ever settled down completely; as we left the coffee shop that morning, I saw a bumper sticker on the back of his car that read in less-than-perfect Koine Greek:
FUK QE KORPORATIONS.
(Read phonetically, it says: “F**k the Corporations.)