Friday, April 17, 2009
A charming, beautiful woman named Christine, who lives in Chartres, France, fell under the spell of Oxford on Thursday night. She and her husband were at the show put on by Square Books and Thacker Mountain Radio, which featured author readings and kick-ass live blues, hillbilly and rock music. From where Christine sat, Mississippi presented itself as the most literate, fun, friendly, hip, and musically accomplished place in the world.
An eclectic crowd began to gather an hour before the show started, alongside a film crew, the radio production crew put together by Jim Dees, a longtime Oxford fixture who hosts Thacker Mountain Radio, and Duff Dorrough’s house band, the Yalobushwhackers. Bright lights were trained on the stage in Off-Square Books’ beautiful old building, and the buzz was audible. Thacker Mountain is in some ways a pleasant throwback, because how often do 200 people gather to watch a live radio show? But it also offers a modern take on things that makes it really interesting. It’s one of those Oxford phenomena that have changed the place in the last few decades, and it’s as good as live radio gets. Dees is both entertaining and smart.
As an author reader (though I didn’t actually read), I was allotted eight minutes at the mic, which was strangely alarming. I do not suffer from stage fright, I like to talk, and I love the story of the Sultana. But eight minutes translates to: A mini-show, rather than an open-ended talk with Q&A. It’s the literary equivalent of a short story, which is the most difficult genre because every word counts. Plus, it was live.
I decided to tell one story from Sultana, about the character George Robinson, who has an unlikely “thank God” moment when he finds himself floating down the flooded Mississippi River on a dead mule. Because the lights were so bright I had a hard time seeing anything, including Carol Mockbee, who was poised to signal me when to start winding down. I had practiced, sort of, to make sure I could tell it all in eight minutes, but I was just hitting my stride when I squinted and saw Carol twirling one finger very enthusiastically in the air. So, ANYWAY! Fortunately I was near to a good stopping point.
Then the music started again. In addition to the house band, the show featured Pat Thomas, son of blues great Son Thomas, who is an excellent blues musician in his own right. As Dees pointed out, the only problem with radio was that the listeners could not see Thomas’s shoes, which were pointed and turquoise. He looked resplendent overall, and his guitar featured the face of a cat he had drawn with magic marker. He was great. In addition to Thomas, the Mayhem String Band played hillbilly music – faced-paced songs accompanied by guitar, mandolin and bass that filled the space with musical adrenaline.
The other author on the playbill was Kevin Wilson (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth), whose book tour has overlapped mine; everywhere I’ve been, it seems, Wilson has either just been there or will be there soon. This was the first time we’d actually met. He was hilarious, and read a story about monster babies that had the crowd laughing all the way through. I was glad I didn’t follow him, because by that point no one would have been primed for pathos. After the show he and I signed books, which was when I got to meet Christine. She now owns the second copy of Sultana that I know of in France, the first going to a guy whose friend was at the Memphis signing.
A group of us, including Richard and Lisa Howorth, who own Square Books, then ambled across the square to the City Grocery bar. Dees was there, too, as well as many of the regulars from the Thacker Mountain audience, and my old friend Guy Gillespie. It was a wonderful night to be out and about in Oxford.
Richard and Lisa have a great old house, which is both a family home and a way station for traveling writers. Readers of the New York Times may recall that the Howorth house is invariably where visiting writers, filmmakers, musicians, stars and the like stay when they’re in Oxford (while I’m there, the Howorths also host writers for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair who are touring juke joints in the Delta). It’s not that the Howorths are wannabes – far from it. They are every bit as interesting as the people they host. There is no pretense. I hasten to add that I was freeloading on the Howorths long before they assumed this role on such a grand scale, having first stayed with them in the late seventies when they lived in D.C. and were employees of a bookstore in Georgetown. We’ve been good friends ever since.
Richard and Lisa are also part of the reason that Oxford is such a cool place. While it would be a stretch to say that they put the town on the literary map – Faulkner did that, and countless other writers, many of whom couldn’t find their own town, followed in his footsteps – but Square Books definitely cranked up the literary lights. It’s a great store, as good as any bookstore, anywhere. Everybody who’s anybody who writes a book ends up there.
In the last few decades, much of what was once unique about Oxford – the old settings on the square that provided for so many interesting stories, including the pool hall, the Ice House and the Jitney – are gone, supplanted by condos and upscale shops. Everything today is just-so, and Oxford is in many ways a stylized rendition of its former self. Even its vaunted literary scene sometimes seems a bit contrived. But there is so much going on that Oxford remains one of the most interesting towns I know of. There’s a vibrant music scene, there’s Square Books, there’s City Grocery, there’s Thacker Mountain Radio, there’s Fat Possum Records, and there’s a great appreciation for literature.
I went to Ole Miss in the seventies and eighties, when I lived in a rambling old house with a worn path across the back yard that led to the Hoka Theater and The Gin bar. It was a great time to be in Oxford. There was no bronze sculpture of Faulkner on the square then, but his stories lived on, and seemed somehow a more authentic part of the town’s backdrop. The Ice House, across from our house, was built atop an artesian well and people from the country came to town to fill jugs from its forever-flowing spigot: Three generations of one family, riding in an old Chevy Nova with red clay splatters on the fenders; an old man who still roamed the streets in a wagon pulled by two mules. The Hoka showed vintage, foreign and art films for a largely stoner audience that defied the university’s Greek paradigm. Today the Hoka is gone; the Ice House has been replaced by – you guessed it – condos, as has the old house where I lived; and the Gin is a vine-shrouded ruin. Up on the square, all the facades are perfect.
But the changes have also brought benefits. There are great restaurants now, and there are those thriving literary and music scenes. A lot of the credit goes to Richard and Lisa, and to people like Jim Dees, who recognize not only what’s cool and interesting and fun about Oxford, but what’s cool and interesting and fun about the wider world.
For those who were not within radio range on Thursday night, Mississippi Public Broadcasting rebroadcasts the show three weeks after each initial airing, at 7 p.m. on Saturday nights.