Heart of the Delta
Discovering the back pages of John Pritchard's world.
(page 4 of 6)
The Writing Life
John once explained the great conflict of the writer’s life to me.
“You want to be out living life,” he said, “not sitting at home writing about it.” So, after years of teaching and songwriting, John finally sat down to write the book he always wanted to.
“I kind of knew it when I was about 14,” John explains. “I wanted to be a writer.” He was impressed by the popular novels of other young writers, Phil Stone and Françoise Sagan among them. “I thought, gosh, if they could write these things at 17, and they’re not very long — I could do that, I could write a little book — and it would be a book.
“I tried writing some things when I was at Ole Miss,” John says. “I tried writing when I was in New Orleans. I tried writing when I was in New York. One time I was at home — I forget what period that was, I think it was before I went into the army — and wrote a novella. I wrote five pages a day for about a month or so.
“It was just ghastly, ghastly, ghastly. It had a character named Abel Shepherd, you know? And the characters were all so tortured and lonely — Oh, what does it all mean? — that kind of stuff.
“But when I wrote back in those days I hadn’t made all the horrible mistakes — I hadn’t done all the things; I had no chain of regrets. I had maybe three or four regrets, but I didn’t have an entire footlocker full of them, to look back on with shame every time I open my retrospective eyes.
“You know, I didn’t know anything. I wrote what I thought writing should sound like — what a novel should sound like. And it just wasn’t going to be.”
“But now I’ve got my book,” he says, “and it shows you that sticking at it can pay off in the end.”
Junior Ray Loveblood
Mississippi state tourist officials won’t be handing this book out anytime soon,” Publisher’s Weekly said of one of John’s books, “though they might be surprised by its effectiveness if they did.”
The world of the Delta in John’s novels is the world of Junior Ray Loveblood. Junior Ray is a bigoted, vulgar misanthrope and retired sheriff’s deputy who narrates each of the novels as an oral history.
He is a character whose repugnance is not easily matched, and the stories are continuously embellished and punctuated by his hatred or dislike of virtually everyone and everything — not to mention his profanity. Memphis author John Fergus Ryan once said that Junior Ray’s speech “has taken profanity and made a new language of it.” What the reader will find on the first page of the first book is Junior Ray saying, “Some people say there ain’t that much to me, but that’s a gotdamn lie. There’s just as much to me as it is to any other sumbitch I know.” From here on, Junior Ray takes command.
In the town of St. Leo, in Mhoon County, John creates a place full of Chaucer’s worldly satire and Flannery O’Conner’s rustic grace. In the first novel, the reader follows Junior Ray on a manhunt for an escaped lunatic. In Yazoo Blues, he recounts his theories about a forlorn 1863 Union expedition through the Delta rivers, and the travails of a lovelorn friend infatuated with a Memphis stripper.
John’s satirical vision of the Delta is of a world both beautiful and strange, and what Junior Ray offers the reader is a perspective that goes beyond an outsider’s view. The opposite of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly, Junior Ray is a clever man, but not intelligent; he is a man of action, but so consumed with frustration and so short-sighted that he has turned the small town of St. Leo against him, and continuously trips over himself when he is not outright blocked.
John knows the Delta, and Junior Ray Loveblood is every bit as rough around the edges as the Delta is. As Virgil leads Dante through the afterlife, so John uses Junior Ray to guide his readers through the backroads, the juke joints, and the small towns of Mhoon County. And along the way he offers his unsolicited opinions on everything from God and sex, to the white landowners, the black community, a clever alternative to nuclear weapons, and everything else.
But John succeeds in making Junior Ray almost likable. He’s himself, and makes no pretentions otherwise. The things he says may not be pretty, but there’s always a grain of truth in them — even if he doesn’t see it himself.
“I find a helluva lot of peace in bein’ a sunavabitch,” Junior Ray says. “A sunavabitch don’t have to worry about nothin’, and I guess that’s why I never really have.”