Sunday, August 03, 2014
Music of the Swamp by Lewis Nordan
As my faithful listeners may recall, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill is my favorite publisher of contemporary southern fiction. I have several books by Lewis Nordan, and I decided to dip into one of his for a marathon session of summer reading. Music of the Swamp tells the story of Sugar Mecklin and Roy Dale Conroy, two friends who live on the delta in Mississippi. I am not sure of the time period of the story, but the lack of cell phones, computers, and cable television, push it back to the middle seventies. Sugar’s dad drives a Ford Pinto, so that points to the middle to late 70s as well. I actually enjoy solving these little puzzles while I am reading.
As the author’s note informs us, Lewis Nordan is the author of seven books of fiction including several acclaimed novels. He also wrote a memoir, and received many awards for his writing. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2012.
Lewis Nordan has filled Music of the Swamp with some jolts and shocks, and a healthy dose of humor to go along. Sugar describes Roy Dale as “white trash,” although from the description of Sugar’s father and family life, they are not so far off that mark either. However the two boys are close friends, and they navigate the dangerous waters of alcoholic fathers and mothers who care little for housekeeping.
The humor concerns the boy’s view of these difficulties and their attitudes toward their parents. Neither seems to have any other friends. Sugar has a vivid imagination, which makes him an unreliable narrator. Sugar loves to tell stories, and he frequently confesses his exaggerations. Nordan writes,
“I suppose there is one more thing to tell. For many years, after I was grown and no longer lived in Mississippi, I told this story to my friends. And when I told it, I always added one detail that was not true. // I always said that after we had settled down and had drifted off to sleep beneath the canvas roof of the tent, I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of [his sister] Dixie Dawn’s sweet pure angelic voice in song. I said that beneath the bright stars her voice was a crisp spirit, a lyrical hopeful pause in the terrible drama of our narrow lives. I said – and even as I invented this I believed it – I said that in the foreign-language music of her song my ears and my heart opened up to a world larger and more generous than the world of my parents and our geography. // Now as I tell this story again, I forget I ever made up such a thing. It is not true, of course. Dixie Dawn did not wake up that night, so far as I knew. As far as I know, she lay in her bed in a hard deliberate sleep, where song had put her and from which song could never draw her out” (45-46).
Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp has a number of heartbreaking and heartwarming episodes. He makes a reader laugh and cry, sometimes on the same page. The tender moments of a young boy growing up under what I can most kindly describe as difficult circumstances make this short novel a pleasure to read. 5 stars.