Lewis Nordan comes highly recommended, yet I have always steered clear of him because he is praised by people fond of cute Southern fiction, of which there is a dismal abundance these days, practiced by writers who go moony over characters named Boll Weevil and June Bug. To be sure, there are people in the South with names like that—a friend of a friend swears there is a man in the Mississippi Delta named Fat Jew Baby Simpson, swears that it is the name on his birth certificate, as a matter of fact. And I’ve got nothing against such names. I prefer funky and musical names, and I don’t mind ridiculous names, either. Since the country has sold out to the idea that every region should closely resemble every other region, my response to a child named Joo Joo is, good for you and don’t lose the accent. But then, there are important reasons for feeling this way, and the problem with the kind of writers I’m talking about is that their writing is precious, not important. When I read in countless reviews that these writers are the exciting new voices of the South, I sorely wish they’d shut up. If Quentin Compson had known this kind of writing was going to be celebrated, he’d have killed himself long before he got to Harvard. So I came to Nordan with reservations, to put it mildly, but I discovered that though Lightning Song will undoubtedly be found on the same shelves that carry forgettable and regrettable efforts, it’s better than the company it will keep.
Lighting Song’s protagonist, a 12-year-old named Leroy, is from the start into serious trouble, though not much of it of his own making. His mother and father, Elsie and Donald, are llama farmers in Mississippi who have fallen out of love with each other. Leroy’s uncle Harris shows up and stays with the family because he and his wife have separated. Harris and Elsie begin to draw close, finding the sparks of romance that have faded from their own marriages, while Leroy’s father begins a tryst with a rough-and-tumble Creek Indian. Leroy’s youngest sister is forever wetting her pants, and his younger sister Laurie—a fantastic creation in her own right—is forever threatening to “slap shit” out of him. Leroy, meanwhile, is coming of age even as his world is coming apart. He is gifted with a keen eye, a talent that provides him with substantial amounts of ecstasy, confusion, and pain.
Don’t count on Leroy to be a hayseed version of a sensitive adolescent lost to a troubled conscience, however. Leroy has bite. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Lightning Song is Leroy’s wonderfully humorous and engaging voice, though it does here and there drift into what might be called Saccharin Southern. Nonetheless, Leroy is a consummate spy and goes to great lengths to be places he should not be and observe things that are none of his business, all to the benefit of the reader. A new couple moves into a house down the road, and immediately Leroy is peeking through their windows. To his surprise—and delight—he finds the man of the house wearing a silk scarf and threatening to cut himself with a butcher knife as he moans and wails, stricken by some terrible grief. Here’s how Leroy sees it: “The New Guy was crying. Weeping would be a better word. Leroy was having to search through his whole vocabulary all of a sudden. Wailing, that was another word for what was going on in there. He was crying like nobody’s business, like Leroy had never imagined anyone on earth crying, no sniffles at first, no tuning up to it, just all-out wah-wah-wah. He was a snotty mess he cried so hard. There ought to be a law against crying this hard, forget about it.”
On another expedition, Leroy creeps into the attic of his house, where Harris has established a temporary apartment, and pokes about until he discovers his uncle’s pornographic magazines. There he is, face to photograph with a buxom blonde wearing a skimpy vest and too-tight denim shorts that cannot be zipped up. He remonstrates even as his eyes glaze over and his heart thumps: “Somebody had taken her picture before she really even finished getting dressed. Somebody had put this lady’s little sister’s shorts in her dresser and made her think they were her own, then when she went to put them on, took a picture of her in them. Man, that was low, that was mean. That really fried Leroy….
Where did she get that stupid vest? He hoped she had kept the receipt. She got gypped, man. She got gypped, and good. She went to Gyp City and took up residence, she ran for mayor.”
One of Nordan’s chief talents is his ability to communicate fascination and the ways in which the world is enchanted. His prose rebukes a technological society awash in devices and devoid of charm, reminding us of raptures: “Leroy believed in silken dreams, their sweetness more ruby-throated than prayer, their efficacy more pure than geology. He loved his mother, he loved his father and sisters, the llama and dogs and Old Pappy, even death, in the odorous apple, the song of cardinals, the red of poppies. Leroy saw the streets of a perfect town, its spotted trees, the dull lozenges of its paint and hardware store, a reverberant sun upon greenhouses, a long windowless hospital wall bright with fresh whitewash.”
Nordan’s rhapsodies culminate in a description of Leroy’s initiation into the world of baton twirling. At first, Leroy vehemently protests the idea of taking twirling lessons with his younger sisters. Aside from the general humiliation involved, the plan has been concocted by his mother and his uncle in order to get Leroy and his sisters out of the house so they can be alone, and Leroy knows it. So he’s doubly against twirling. But upon seeing the instructor, a lovely and well-endowed teen beauty, he has a change of heart. Suddenly, after dogged denunciations, he sees that in “the baton lay the universe….He didn’t care what he had said before, he renounced every belief he had ever held, every assertion he had ever made. He didn’t mind the humiliation of changing his mind, of chasing a girl’s dream. The baton was the living bone of him….I am a twirler, he thought, whispered, prayed, as if in a foreign tongue to enhance the mystery, Ich bin ein Twirler….Twirl, he had to twirl, for God’s holy sake, I twirl, therefore I am.”
As it turns out, his encounter with twirling sends his entire family headlong into tragedy. I won’t reveal what happens, but I will say that one of the things that makes Lightning Song rewarding is the way Nordan takes a situation that is initially humorous and then engages in a—dare I say shocking?—bait and switch. That is precisely the word for it, as the night skies in Lightning Song are filled with dazzling bolts of summer lightning. Nordan’s central metaphor proves to be a two-edged sword. The lightning is beautiful to watch and exciting, but it is also deadly. It illuminates dark places, like the kitchen where Leroy’s uncle and mother embrace and steal kisses.
There are passages, particularly in the beginning, when Lightning Song doesn’t resist the temptation to be cute, but this tendency lessens as the novel develops. Leroy leaves off with the one-liners and begins to establish his voice, one many readers will find endearing. The other problem with the novel is that the conclusion seems truncated, and there is a speech, by Leroy’s father, that comes across as forced and a bit too grand. But the pleasures of Lightning Song remain, and the reader is left feeling that Nordan creates with the greatest of ease. If at times Lightning Song is too sweet to be nutritious, Nordan’s natural gift for storytelling and regard for the truth provide supplements of red meat, the hallmark of that venerable Southern literary tradition known simply as gothic.CP