Interiors, Wrestlers, and Killers
At Home in Tennessee: Classic Historic Interiors; These Extremes; Sputnik, Masked Men and Midgets; and Full Force, Nonstop, The Killer Himself
Class Act: That's the way to describe writer Donna Dorian and photographer Anne Hall, who have put together At Home in Tennessee: Classic Historic Interiors (Louisiana State University Press). And who knew so many public and private antebellum houses survive in the Volunteer State and in such beautiful shape, inside and out?
The Hermitage near Nashville and Belmont Mansion in Nashville are perhaps the best known. But the 17 additional houses featured in Dorian and Hall's fully researched and handsomely illustrated book run from the Italianate (McNeal Place in Bolivar), to the Georgian (Cragfont in Sumner County), to the Civil War-significant (Carnton in Franklin), to the lowly log cabin ("Labor in Vain," near Franklin). . . .
Sorry, there's no mention of the Hunt-Phelan House in Memphis, but if the name "Carnton" rings a bell, it's maybe because it served as the setting for Robert Hicks' best-selling novel of the Civil War, The Widow of the South. Hicks spearheaded the restoration and preservation of the Carnton plantation, but "Labor in Vain" is where he lives among period furnishings and a great collection of Southern folk art.
Hicks' latest novel is A Separate Country (Grand Central Publishing), and, like The Widow of the South, it features Confederate general John Bell Hood. But this time, the setting is New Orleans after the Civil War but in the midst of a yellow-fever epidemic.
Hicks, however, didn't set out to be a popular novelist — or novelist at all. He worked as a music publisher and artist manager in both country and alternative-rock music; he served as the "curator of vibe" in the B.B. King's Blues Clubs in Memphis, Nashville, Orlando, and Los Angeles. And he organized the museum exhibit (and authored the catalog for) "Art of Tennessee" in 2003.
It was Memphian Shelby Foote, though, who put Hicks on the road to writing fiction. And a real run-in it was — at the intersection of Poplar and East Parkway. For the full story, according to Hicks, go to "&cetera," the book blog at the web site of Memphis magazine's sister publication, The Memphis Flyer.
Winning Act: That would be Richard Bausch, holder of the Moss Chair of Excellence in English at the University of Memphis. In September, Bausch was named winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, for fiction, for his novel Peace. The prize: an honorarium worth $10,000. The goal of the prize: to recognize "the power of literature to foster peace, social justice, and global understanding." And Peace is that: a meditation on the corrosive effects of violence among a group of American soldiers in World War II Italy.
And there's more reason to recognize Bausch this season. Thanks to Louisiana State University Press, we now have These Extremes, the first collection of poetry and prose from this nationally recognized short-story writer and novelist. The new book's a meditation too: in its longest poem, on the life (and death) of the writer's sister Barbara, and in its closing poems, on the writer's deep affection for his wife and young daughter. Memories of his mother's family home fill the prose piece "The Porch." Memories of his father's words and his great-grandmother's death haunt "So Long Ago." But it's Bausch's poetry — shot through with images drawn from nature and with references to youth and advancing age — that make These Extremes a welcome addition to Bausch's body of work.
Brute Force: Bonnie "Butch" Boyette claimed to have had his ribs broken 26 times, the Fabulous Moolah looked like she could've been the one who broke Boyette's ribs, and Little Darling Dagmar was a peroxided Jean Harlow type (if you discount the fact that Jean Harlow wasn't a dwarf). But all three shared one thing: They were star players during the knock-down, drag-out days of Memphis in its wrestling heyday: the '50s to the '70s. Count in Tojo Yamamoto too as well as Gorgeous George, Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo, and Jerry Lawler. Writer Ron Hall has.
Hall's Sputnik, Masked Men, and Midgets (Shangri-la Projects) is a collection of black-and-white archival fighter photos, ringside shots, ticket stubs, event posters, newspaper ads, and even a bonus four-song CD featuring Monroe, Fargo, Len Rossi, and Handsome Jimmy Valiant when they were outside the ring and inside, for some reason, a recording studio.
You want a bigger, bloodier fight on your hands? Don't mess with Court Gentry. He's the practically superhuman hit man in The Gray Man (Jove), a mass-market paperback by debut author Mark Greaney, a Memphian who's well on his way to becoming a big name in the political thriller genre. The violence here may be over-the-top, but the author's technical know-how is impressive. So too Greaney's way with an internationally set page-turner that's full-force and nonstop.
Full-Force, Nonstop, the Killer Himself: A critic for Rolling Stone called it a "crime scene," not an album. Another writer called it "one long convulsion . . . words cannot describe — cannot contain it." And one rock musician simply called it "one of the top ten rock & roll records of any era."
It was: Jerry Lee Lewis' "Live" at the Star-Club (recorded in Hamburg, Germany, in 1964), and it is a high point among many high points (some low points too) in Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found (Continuum) by Joe Bonomo. Don't call Bonomo's book a standard biography, however — though, it's true, the author opens with the one thing no biography of Lewis can overlook: Lewis' marriage (his third) to his second cousin in 1958, a cousin who happened to be 13 years old (Lewis was 22) when the two, in Hernando, Mississippi, tied the knot.
There would be more events in the career-threatening department: Lewis' combo of booze, pills, and womanizing not the least of it. But nothing can detract from or diminish, according to Bonomo's critical ear, the sheer sonic force of Lewis at his trail-blazing greatest — whether he was inside the studio at Sun with Sam Phillips or live on television in England or live on record at the Star-Club. And for Bonomo, when it comes to the Killer, it doesn't even have to be all rock. He duly recognizes Lewis' career-saving turn to country music in the late '60s.
Still, it's the Killer as bedrock rocker-and-roller that Bonomo adores — an adoration that'll lead you to forgive the author's autobiographical asides (which can run for pages) and that'll more than ever lead you to wish he'd had the cooperation of Lewis himself, who declined to be interviewed.
The late great Memphis musician/producer Jim Dickinson didn't decline to be interviewed. In Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, there's Dickinson, a kid, watching Lewis on Memphis TV at the very start of the Killer's career. As Dickinson recalls: "Here was a white man playing rock-and-roll on the piano. The images and the sound came together for the first time."
Dickinson's gut reaction? Tears: "I was . . . crying like a baby."