In 1956, Lee Pefley (that same Lee Pefley who figures so interestingly in the author's Lee and The New Austerities), that same Lee Pefley (as I was saying) heads off to college. It turns out to be the most permissive institution in the country and yet, somehow, Lee manages to have himself, his adored Judy, and two others expelled from the school before the year is half finished!
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A love story of the 1950s
He was made to stand at attention while Arbuthnot, one of the smallest such persons that Lee had ever seen - he looked as if he had been sawed off at the ribs and his trunk set up in a chair - while the man went on thundering over the telephone in a voice that was deep and hollow and that seemed to come up out of the earth itself. Very few books; Lee spotted perhaps a dozen in all. And because the books were tilted (leaning up against one another), Lee had also to tilt, if he hoped to decipher the titles. Suddenly, the man threw down the phone.
"You come in here... What's your name boy?"
Lee gave it.
"Alabama, is it?"
"Manure! Don't you fellows know how to dress for work? Hey Kurt! Come here, look at this. My, my. So tell me this: you ever read the Birmingham News?"
"I've heard of it."
"Who's the City Editor there?"
Looking up at the ceiling, Lee thought deeply. Kurt, he believed, was cheering for him. And then, too, the light fixture seemed to have a paper airplane that had come to rest upon it.
"I don't know."
"My goddamn brother-in-law, that's who!"
"So my advice is to keep away from it. Hey! You listening to me boy?"
"Those are my books."
The phone rang, the man lifting it half an inch and then slamming it down. Outside, beyond the glass office, Lee could see where one of the reporters had gathered his typewriter and was making as if to crash his neighbor (sleeping) over the head with it.
"I don't know why you want to go into journalism, I sure don't. Great God Almighty, if I was tall as you I'd be President by now. Look at me."
"I tell you the squat truth boy, if I was to do it over again, I'd go into the military. Kill people."
"Yes, sir. I used to read the Birmingham News on Sundays."
"I do my drinking on Sunday. You drink, boy?"
"Not much. Beer."
"Then you're in the goddamn wrong profession! Out, out, get out of here, go on!"
They entered a small town, moving noiselessly down a row of shops where a rim of light was burning around the edges of a certain yellow shade. A grocery came up, inside it a bald man holding death at bay with a broom. Now, moments later, they were in the country again and slicing into a woods so dense that it was difficult to see how anything larger than a child could gain entry to it. Lee caught his first real view of the driver, a tired person whose lids were propped open with toothpicks and thread...
He went on, entering into the modern city. In a town like this it was the plentitude of things, quantity on top of quantity, whether of books or slums or snotty-looking women. He passed a pawnshop, the richest he had seen, and with the greatest troves of coins and whatnot, including half a dozen saxophones and... He decided to pass it by. Next he drifted past a window that was running over with mannequins, all of them rich-looking and bored save for one who wore a look of spiritual distress. The next window displayed a mannequin family, even down to the life-like cat. And all this time, to be assailed by smells - he counted two bakeries in one block, all of it backed up by a most haughty-looking restaurant that flew the French flag. He did not stop however until he came to a bookstore, a grand one, where he put on his bored expression before going inside...
Go South, Young Man
In his first novel, 1991’s Lee, Tito Perdue introduced us to Alabama-born Lee Pefley, age 70. Even as he approached his final days, Lee was a proud reactionary, a misanthrope’s misanthrope, an American Bardamu who railed against every eruption of modern "culture." Glossy magazines, television, pop music–every step outside his room, each encounter with Western Civilization in steep decline drove him to paroxysms of cane-swinging rage. His only solace came from books–specifically, the classics–and from the memories of his beloved late wife, Judy. The novel contains some of the most heartfelt, lively, funny, and wicked rants I’ve ever read.
In his next book, The New Austerities, Perdue gave us Lee again, but middle-aged this time, and working at a Wall Street insurance company. Here, Lee is a sociopathic library-book kleptomaniac, an insomniac who listens to Wagner, carries a gun, drinks, and has little patience for his co-workers or the city around him. Unwilling to put up with the New York of the early 80s any longer, he quits his job and sets off with Judy on a phantasmagoric journey down the East Coast toward the Alabama homestead of his youth, where he hopes to resuscitate the decrepit family farm. Like Lee, The New Austerities is a sharp, savage novel, both hilarious and relentlessly grim. Love Lee Pefley or hate him (he wouldn’t much care either way), he always commands your attention.
Opportunities in Alabama Agriculture, Perdue’s next, focuses on Ben, Lee’s grandfather, and is more elegiac than his previous novels. This only makes sense, given the time and place and character involved. Still, the writing is unmistakable. Perdue’s craftsmanship and descriptive prose remains unmatched by most any writer I can think of today. If you had to give a name to his style, I guess you might call it a kind of "Gothic postmodern classical." It is rich and melodic and furious, loaded with literary allusions and uproarious non sequitur details.
It’s been nearly 10 years since we’ve seen a new novel from Mr. Perdue (which says more about the short sightedness of the publishing industry than it does about Mr. Perdue); this is why his new novel, The Sweet-Scented Manuscript, is such a blessing.
Although Lee Pefley is once again the protagonist, the novel bears only a momentary resemblance to the first two. In fact, at heart this one’s a love story–but a love story as only Perdue could tell it (and Lee could live it).
The Sweet-Scented Manuscript (the title comes from The Rubaiyat) opens with Lee, now 18, boarding a bus to leave home for the very first time, on his way to college in Ohio in 1956.
Everything he sees out his window is new to him. Birmingham, the first big city he’s ever experienced, fills him with wonder and awe–but the lights and the crowds don’t leave him so dumbstruck that he forgets to check his wallet every few minutes. (Yet he still falls for the most transparent of penny-ante grifts.)
Along the way, no detail escapes Lee’s eye–from the changes in the landscape to the light of the moon, to the expressions on the faces of his fellow bus passengers. Throughout the book, in fact, Lee is always noticing everything, from the hand gestures of people across the street to whatever might be happening in the farthest corner of the room.
"Across from him," Perdue writes, "a fat woman was sitting with a stunned expression, knees far apart. No one loved her, no one ever had, and now she no longer thought about it anymore. Outside, a tramp drifted past, his face revealing that it had only just now occurred to him that this was to be his last winter on earth."
Upon reaching the campus of the small liberal arts college, he is at once fascinated and shocked, envious of the people he sees carrying books, playing chess, and having discussions in cafes. They’re all brilliant, he surmises. And so, immediately, he himself adopts the air of the world-weary intellectual with romantic fantasies of an early death (which he happily shares with everyone).
Soon, however, he falls for Judy–the most beautiful girl on campus–and all but forgets his studies as he moons over her. When it becomes clear that she doesn’t love him as much as he loves her, his passion becomes obsessive and, at times, angry.
It sounds, to read my description, like a fairly boilerplate set up for a coming-of-age novel, but it’s not. And it’s not for several reasons–first, the fact that it’s so real. I left for college 30 years after Lee did, but his experience of those early days struck home in detail after detail–from the picnic at the home of the college president to the unease at first meeting a new roommate, to the feelings of inadequacy and wonder over being in such an alien place surrounded by people like these. At the same time, however, Purdue drops in the odd detail–the dog with stumpy wings, say, or the policeman with the well-oiled gloves, or the broken hamburger held together with toothpicks–just to reinforce the fact that, to an Alabama boy away from home and in love for the first time, Ohio is a strange and exotic planet.
The other thing that makes this much more than a simple novel about first romance is Perdue’s fluid, consciously musical prose. Normally, upon hearing the terms "musical" or "poetic" in reference to prose, I steer clear, expecting it to be more of that vapid, Atlantic Monthly writing-seminar crap. But Perdue’s prose is musical, like Wagner or Mahler. It’s got guts to it.
"Time, dread Time, it was nudging both of them closer and closer to eternity, night closing in, leaves falling. And sometimes it seemed to him they had but moments, parts of moments, and then must go tumbling forever among the stars."
Before he realizes what’s happening, Judy has left for New York, and Lee discovers that his semester of work-study is to be spent in Cleveland, where he takes a job as a copyboy at a believably dysfunctional newspaper populated with cranky editors, drunken reporters, and an ongoing card game in the bathroom.
It’s in Cleveland that we witness Lee both coming into his own and coming a bit unglued–in short, becoming the Lee we’ve met in the earlier novels. He wanders the seedier parts of town, hangs out at strip clubs, and becomes an insomniac (sort of like a southern Travis Bickle). No matter where he goes, none of the people around him seem quite right, somehow. Lee himself seems kind of shaky, too.
"In the next booth, a man came up suddenly for air, allowing himself to be seen for the first time. They looked at each other, Lee and the man, both sharing the intelligence that life was old and death just outside the door. The jukebox music, as ignorant as it was, yet it harkened him back to Alabama and to his own incredible career that had played itself out to just such songs. Yes it was the Past once again tossing up memories whether he wanted to look at them or no. And sometimes it seemed to him that he could not go on much longer, seizure to seizure, memory to memory."
What Perdue seems to be doing in The Sweet-Scented Manuscript is the same sort of thing Joyce was doing in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (I don’t think the similarity is wholly accidental). He’s writing simultaneously with innocence and wisdom about a character who was innocent but didn’t want to be–or at least didn’t want to appear to be–and of a more innocent time that was, nevertheless, hardly as innocent as we often tend to think. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but Perdue does it with grace and style. Lee moves through the world not driven by much except his love for Judy, convinced all along that he’s going to die by the age of 23. Mostly he just drifts around, looks at things, has uncomfortable conversations with people, and dreams of travel. He’s not as angry as we know he will be in later years, but near the end of the book, he’s getting there. Now, he’s just a little morbid and Romantic, full of the kind of hubris you’ll always find in overly well-read 18-year-olds.
After returning to college, he wins Judy’s heart, has small adventures with his harmonica-tooting roommate, Luke, tries in a number of ways to rebalance Luke’s brilliant but unbalanced girlfriend, Sylvia, and never, ever seems to go to class.
To be honest, there’s not much by way of plot, but as Perdue once told me in an interview for New York Press, "Life doesn’t have a plot." Things just happen. He tries to hitchhike to New York with Luke. He takes a lot of long bus rides. He stops to stare in the windows of pawnshops and bookstores. He has brief encounters with bums and ticket takers and waitresses. Through these tiny events, we slowly witness Lee’s growing contempt for authority figures and unease around the cities he claims to love. Yet, though little happens in terms of plot, we’re never bored, because we’re seeing everything from Lee’s perspective, and while he may be awfully grim at times, he’s also (loath as we may be to admit it) funny as hell.
In one particularly hilarious sequence, he and Judy visit Chicago. It’s by far the largest city he’s ever seen, full of people who are (literally) running all the time, and whose habits he hasn’t quite grasped yet. (When a hostess in a restaurant asks if she can bring them anything from the bar, Lee replies, "Sure… If you want to.")
Lee Pefley remains a character, even at 18, of incredible depth, thanks to Perdue. He’s confused but getting there, not sure what he wants and so in turn not wanting much, content to soak up experience wherever he can, living in a world we all know but may not always recognize.
Likewise, Tito Perdue is, without question, one of the most important contemporary Southern writers we have–and should certainly be considered among the most important American writers of the early 21st century. This new novel of his is an absolute delight.
(Jim Knipfel's review appearing in The New York Press of Jan. 9, 2004)
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