Crazy in Mississippi

In Mark Childress' new novel, there's major mayhem in Minor.



When the Musgroves of Indiana learn that they're moving to Mississippi, things are either looking up or headed to hell. You can tell as much, page one, of Mark Childress' latest novel, One Mississippi (Little, Brown).

On the upside: For Lee Ray Musgrove (the father), the transfer means an easier territory for this "jolliest most hard-working devoted salesman" in the history of TriDex petrochemicals (company motto: "We Know What Bugs You"). For Peggy Jean Musgrove (the mother), the transfer means a return to familiar territory for this "flower" of the deep South (home state: Alabama; home turf: south Alabama). For Janie (the 12-year-old daughter), the transfer means she can parade some grade-school knowledge of the Magnolia State (capital: Jackson, where the Musgroves are heading; state products, she proudly announces: "cotton, lumber, poultry, and cattle").

But on the downside: For Bud (the older Musgrove son), Lee Ray's transfer is not only the latest in a long line of family moves, it's "the dumbest thing" he's ever heard. Why? Because Bud, a senior in high school, just made the varsity wrestling team. And as for 16-year-old Daniel (the younger Musgrove son)? It's not only a dumb move, it's the end of the world, Daniel's "Yankee" world -- Mississippi being still home in the early 1970s (when this story takes place) to "redneck sheriffs and protesting Negroes and civil-rights workers buried in earthen dams."

Murdered civil-rights workers is one thing, but that's not all there is on the road to and through Mississippi (and yes, we're still in chapter one of One Mississippi): Just south of Memphis, the Musgroves' Olds Delta 88 hits a bump, and Daniel bangs his cheek against the car window. Then the four-lane interstate turns into a broken two-lane; an Allied Van Lines truck jack-knifes; the truck explodes; and a TV it was carrying shoots into the air and lands at Daniel's feet. Unfortunately, it's the Musgroves' TV. Peggy Jean says not to worry. Homeowners' will cover it. But homeowners', she learns, doesn't cover it. Nor does Allied Van Lines, because Lee Ray failed to mention to Peggy Jean that he turned down the insurance coverage that the moving company offered. The added expense hardly made it worth it.

So: belongings lost, what do the Musgroves do? They carry on. Then they get lost. Which is how they end up not in Jackson but in Hattiesburg. Worse, according to Daniel, the swimming pool at the Rebel Yell Motor Lodge in Hattiesburg doesn't even have a slide. When he complains, Lee Ray, not at his jolliest, hits the roof. More accurately, he hits on Daniel from the door of the Delta 88 to their door at the Rebel Yell. And yes, it's a good thing this country's got laws, because, as Daniel points out in his first-person narrative, it's against the law to kill your kids.

It's also against the law to commit a hit-and-run. Daniel knows it, but Daniel does just that months later in a suburb of Jackson on the night of the Minor (Mississippi) High School prom. Arnita Beecham (the first African-American prom queen in Minor High's history) was on her bike late that night, and she slammed into the car that Daniel's best friend Tim was driving. The boys high-tail it to call for help but don't breathe a word to authorities that they were in on the accident. And Arnita doesn't die. She recovers, brain-injured, to become . . . a white girl who thinks her name is Linda, daughter of a father and mother she says are Steve and Eydie. Then . . .

Daniel falls in love with and loses his virginity to Arnita. Tim falls in love with and doesn't lose his virginity to Daniel. And the school band loses in a competition in Vicksburg because the band's black members lay down their instruments in protest against the lyrics of a song by Stephen Foster. And later . . .

Daniel and Tim get tickets to see Sonny and Cher in Jackson, and they even get to talk to Cher in her very dressing room. (But Sonny throws them out.) This is before (or is it after?) Daniel and Tim join the Full Flower Baptist Church's cast of a show called Christ!: A Musical of the Lord, words and music by a closeted theater queen named Edwin B. Smock. But when Smock takes the show on the road for its premiere in Itta Bena, Smock gets uncloseted and arrested. So he kills himself. And in no time . . .

Lee Ray loses his job at TriDex, the Musgrove house in Minor explodes, Janie gets her tonsils out, Peggy Jean's crippled uncle gets pneumonia, the family moves into a house attached to the screen of a drive-in theater, a car belonging to Minor High's star jock explodes, and Tim himself explodes -- psychiatrically -- which leads to a bloodbath at Minor High that beats Columbine by two decades.

When last we hear, Lee Ray and Peggy Jean are taking the family on the road, again, this time to Provo, Utah. Why? Because TriDex said to. (Lee Ray got his job back.) And Daniel? He's wiser and lucky to be alive after confessing to the police about that prom-queen hit-and-run and about that love-gone-way-wrong business of Tim's. And Bud? He's been out of the picture for nearly 400 pages, because he joined the Marines. Vietnam and all. It beats his having to witness the mayhem in Minor -- the absurdities and the body count, not to mention Christ! (the musical) -- depicted in the overcrowded, seriocomic One Mississippi.

And here you were, a fan of Mark Childress' fiction, thinking things were Crazy in Alabama.

Shelf Life

In February 2005, Memphis ran a feature on Michael Connors, author of Cuban Elegance and Caribbean Elegance, and here he is again -- a Memphis native living in New York City and an authority on Caribbean culture and antiques. Now he's published his third, splendid coffee-table book, from Abrams: French Island Elegance. Connors (with the help of photographer Bruce Buck) takes you into the historic and contemporary homes of Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, and St. Barts. And what you have is a showcase of French island architecture and furnishings at their finest. It's a history lesson too: from the opulent houses of sugar barons and rich merchants during the Colonial period to the interior design of today. The views inside and out: spectacular.

For history closer to home, see your librarians. In Mayor Crump Don't Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis (University Press of Mississippi), G. Wayne Dowdy, senior librarian and archivist for the Benjamin Hooks Central Library, takes you on a tour of the life and times of the boss man himself. As a companion volume, consider Historic Photos of Memphis (Turner Publishing Company). The authors, Gina Cordell and Patrick O'Daniel, likewise work for the library, and many of these photos are drawn from its archives. Of particular interest: a nineteenth-century shot of the Hunt-Phelan House on Beale. The setting isn't the sun-drenched Caribbean -- rather, post-Civil War Memphis. But the house survived, its dignity and grace intact. 

STAFF PICK

The Samurai's Garden

(St.Martin's Press)

By Gail Tsukiyama

It doesn't necessarily take illness to need a little healing -- and even if your health is perfect while reading Gail Tsukiyama's The Samurai's Garden, you experience a sense of renewal as the remaining pages thin out. Sound unlikely? A much beloved (and appropriately feared) English teacher, Ms. Newberry, assigned this novel to our AP English class during my senior year at Hutchison. In her infinite wisdom, she must have understood (or at least been aware of) the mingled emotions -- a bizarre concoction of imbecilic confidence and wrenching self-doubt -- that collectively drove my classmates and me at this juncture in our lives. The effect was calming, humbling, and inspiring.

The main character, Stephen, is introduced to the reader as he's in the throes of tuberculosis. Although he narrates his story in hindsight, presumably years after the illness has subsided and his strength has returned, Tsukiyama captures the sensations and emotions that accompanied his ordeal with incredible precision. The persistent and disorienting fever that Stephen endures is particularly well wrought, and I empathized with the frustration and acceptance he experienced throughout his captivating account.

When Stephen is transported from Hong Kong to Tarumi, a coastal town in Japan, to escape the strains of urban life and regain his strength, a cultural subplot begins to take shape. Stephen is positioned amid the active clashing of two separate peoples -- the Chinese and the Japanese -- at an especially caustic time in their mutual history, the eve of World War II. Born to a Chinese mother and Japanese father, and raised on somewhat neutral ground in California, Tsukiyama has the unique ability to empathize with and justly be critical of both societies. As Stephen becomes acquainted with Japanese culture through Matsu, the caretaker of the house where he is staying, the reader profits from Stephen's generous portraits of the exquisite gardens, intricate customs, painful memories, and devotion to honor that frame the Japanese way of life.

The strength of this novel, and of Gail Tsukiyama's writing, lies in her ability to draw the reader into the plight of the narrator. Stephen is not an exceptional human being, but this normalcy makes him all the more accessible. I wanted Stephen to fight for his health and for the principles he acquires in opening his heart to a world that is foreign and potentially threatening. Whatever Ms. Newberry's aim was in assigning this book, I can earnestly attest to the profit of her choice.

-- Christina Leatherman

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