Junior Ray Redux

Author John Pritchard: back in foul-mouthed form.

"Most people, it looks like to me, become real interested in the past about the time it becomes clear they're about to become part of it."

That quote comes courtesy of Junior Ray Loveblood, who's getting up in years.

"For some reason I seem to be drawn to people who ain't right in the head."

That's Junior Ray too, born in the hill country of north Mississippi but bred in the dark, rich flatland of the Mississippi Delta, where the instances of insanity have a habit of reaching a high-water mark. That doesn't mean, though, that Junior Ray hasn't seen his fare share of the world.

"I was out West once. It looked like a . . . gravel pit to me. But, hell, that's Arkansas for you."

Well, okay, Junior Ray, you said it. But as for your way of saying it, there's usually not a word out of your mouth that's fit to polite society, and here goes:

" . . . [S]ooner or later, you and every swingin' [expletive deleted] I know — hell, all of us — one way or a-[expletive deleted]-nother, out there in the everyday swamp, is gonna step into a stump hole and come up with our own rendition of the Yazoo blues. Yet it's the same song no matter where you sing it." Or, apparently, when you sing it.

Just think of those thousands of Yankee soldiers in 1863 who got a good dose of the blues when they tried invading Vicksburg the back way: by way of the flooded Yazoo River pass. It's a Civil War campaign (under the command of a Union lieutenant "gooberized" on "pay-otey") that Junior Ray — former deputy sheriff; present-day security guard at a Tunica casino, and amateur historian — sees as a mess of real craziness.

But The Yazoo Blues? It's John Pritchard's follow-up to Junior Ray, a story that stumped everybody (including Pritchard's publisher, NewSouth Books) by becoming a surprise Barnes & Noble Top 10 pick in 2005 for debut novels. And as with Junior Ray, The Yazoo Blues has it going full-force: lowdown high jinks (on both sides of the law), a history lesson here and there, graphic sex scenes every whichway, and equal-opportunity offensiveness (in the words of Junior Ray) on the subject of blacks, "planters," college professors, golfers, weekend hunters, bankers, "Piscob'ls," psychiatrists, Latinos, and "queers." And on top of it, there's the sound of the Delta itself, pure and simple: from "bobakew" to "bye-oh," from "gotdamn" to "litter-ture," and from "outchonda" to "Meffis," the city whose strip joint, the Magic Pussy Cabaret & Club, Junior Ray practically calls home and the city that John Pritchard, who teaches today at Southwest Tennessee Community College, does call home. But he hasn't always.

His mother's forebears may have been in Tunica County since the mid-nineteenth century, but his architect father moved the family outside Washington, D.C., during World War II. Pritchard, after studying at Ole Miss, himself spent time in the Fifties as an army lieutenant, but he was, in his own words, "a terrible soldier."

"They put me in a place where I could do no harm at all: the reception station at Fort Knox," Pritchard says. "It was like being in college with no homework. I hunted and fished and drank cheap liquor in the officers' club. Plus other stuff."

After the service, there was more "stuff": Pritchard for a semester at Columbia University to train for what he thought would be a career in the State Department ("I had no more commitment to that than I did to becoming an astronaut"); copyboy at The New York Times; salesman at a New York City gift shop where he sold, for a dollar an hour, camel-saddle footstools, ebony elephants, and rosewood tigers; and another stint at the Times — all this before returning to Tunica. Says Pritchard: "The Prodigal Son had worn himself out."

Not for long. In the Seventies, Pritchard pursued a career as a lyricist in Nashville, which taught him a good lesson: "Those wonderful songwriters with doors closing in their face? They might cry for 20 seconds, but then they just got on with it!"

So he learned the value of waiting and of seeing things through. And in the back of Pritchard's mind there was always this:

"I've wanted a book contract since I was 17. And at the age of 57, I said to myself, 'Pritchard, you always thought you were going to write a big, beautiful book about the South. You might not. So, what are you going to do?'

"Well, I thought, don't write a big, beautiful book about the South! Write a small, not-so-beautiful book. I already had a manuscript that was nearly 400 pages long. In there was Junior Ray. I took him out and let him tell the story. It worked. I'd found a voice." And NewSouth Books found a new author. But did it work for Pritchard once he was faced with a sequel of sorts to Junior Ray?

"Apparently, I've become a comedian when I didn't even realize it," he says. "So I had a comedian's anxiety on this thing. I'd got the applause one night. Could I do it the next time?"

Publishers Weekly thinks so. It recently gave The Yazoo Blues a starred review. Library Journal wrote that the novel was "devoid of plot but not of hilarity."

But plot, by Pritchard's own estimate, isn't his "thing." Comedy — the human comedy, as he sees it — is. So too Junior Ray, as he sees it: "You just have to put things in perspective. And I always do. Maybe I ought to say that things is always already in perspective: you just have to learn how to see it."

And hear it. Fans at Pritchard's book signings (he'll be at Burke's Book Store on November 13th) in fact ask for it.

"Audiences want me to read the profanity. They do, but they don't. To read it as written, on the page, it doesn't bother them. But the frequency, the intensity . . . I am not reading those words aloud. Even I don't want to hear 'em! I'm not being true to my art? Well, okay then . . . I'm not."

But he is. His unforgettable portrait of Junior Ray, profanity and all, is firmly rooted, Pritchard says, "in a fascination with existence, period. Is there 'meaning' there or not? In the industrial North, in the rural South, there are guys just like Junior Ray."

Just as there's the Yazoo blues, in the words of Junior Ray, "ever-where."

Shelf Life

Hear the delta in the words of John Pritchard's The Yazoo Blues. Listen to it too in the sounds of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Son House, and B.B. King. They and more musicians are the subject of Ramblin' on My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues (University of Illinois Press), a collection of scholarly articles edited by University of Memphis musicologist, performer, and producer David Evans. Then read on. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (W.W. Norton) is new from jazz and blues authority, pianist, and composer Ted Gioia. For a fine look at the Delta, go to the photographs by lifelong Mississippian Jane Rule Burdine. Her Delta Deep Down is, appropriately enough, from the University Press of Mississippi, and it takes a loving look at the skies and landscape, the people and places. Anyone up for a night out in Lambert? Just follow the sign (Burdine has) to Club Watchamacallit.

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