Raising a Glass to Larry Brown

by Daren Wang

Photo courtesy of Paul Wolf/Find It In Fondren

Social media rains outrage on our heads daily, and I’ve grown exhausted. 

In the barrage of misery that is our news cycle, I hate how my anxiety gets compounded when someone I’ve long admired says or does something idiotic. To wit:

This is kind of embarrassing for me. I grew up just a few miles from Oates’s childhood home. There are plenty of great writers from those parts, but Joyce Carol Oates stands above the rest. She’s my homegirl.

And then she types something like that into the Twitter machine.

I spent some time in Mississippi recently, and I thought I’d share what a hellish experience it is for a first time novelist to tour a state that doesn’t read.

You start in the south, driving into Jackson to Lemuria Books where Johnny Evans greets you like a conquering hero. He has 500 books for you to sign. Five hundred. And this, in a state where nobody reads.

That’s a lot of writing, so Johnny breaks up the afternoon with a trip to Cathead Distillery, where his son, Austin, takes you to the bar and pours tastes from casks of bourbon aging a few feet away. He brings out little bottles with handwritten labels of various blends they put together that weekend. Just for variety, he pours a shot of barrel-aged gin, and I wondered if the world did just shift under my stool, or if I might have had just a nip too many.

But there are still hundreds of books to sign for Mississippi’s unreading masses, so I must head back to Lemuria. Not without stopping at Eudora Welty’s house, though. It’s closed, but I’m with Johnny Evans, so he gets me a private tour. I stared at the manuscript pages where Ms. Welty cut and pasted the paragraphs that would become “One Writer’s Beginnings.” Johnny talked about serving as her pallbearer.

After leaving that temple of literature, you go back to Lemuria where you sit and sign for another hour or so, sitting under portraits of Hemingway and Harrison and Faulkner and, of course, Ms. Welty.

There’s a nice, attentive crowd that asks great questions for the event. You are so high afterward that you drive out of Jackson wondering if you are the second coming of one of those writers enshrined on those walls. The next day, you are in Greenwood where you’ll be talking at Turnrow Book Co. You check into a room at the Alluvian Hotel, and you feel like royalty.

You sit in the balcony of the store, answering emails as you listen to the staff tell every soul who walks into the store about your book, and you watch them all leave with copies.

After your event, you settle into a booth with Steve Iwanski from Turnrow, and a cocktail named Jefferson’s Envy arrives, and you take one sip and are grateful that you get to walk to your hotel room. It is sweet and spicy, and the bourbon finish makes you want another even before the one you are having is done. One of the attendees from the reading sits with you and tells you stories of her mother, the AP reporter in that town during the Emmett Till era. The next morning, you stop at the Crossroads outside Clarksdale, and think you must have already sold your soul to be there.

Your next Mississippi stop is Square Books in Oxford, and they are putting on a radio show for you. Hundreds come out for the taping of “Thacker Mountain Radio,” and you read and answer questions between music sets, and the event goes on the air across Mississippi. They have you sign a picture, and it will go on the wall of the store with all the rest. And you feel made.

Afterward, you go up to City Grocery where Beth Ann Fennelly and John T. Edge and Tom Franklin and Richard Howarth toast your book, and you think of the first time you drank in that bar, 20 years ago, sitting with the legendary Larry Brown. You think of how he told you about the manuscripts he burned on his way to becoming such a fierce writer, and you raise your bourbon to him, though you know he’d rather you drove around in a pickup with a six-pack sweating on the seat next to you, tossing the empties into the truck bed.

When you drive out of Mississippi that night, you remember it all, and you think of the moment, just a few days before, when Johnny Evans took you on a tour of Lemuria, and talked of the thought he puts into which section a book goes into.

“If you put Steinbeck into Classics, people will read him less,” he said.

He walked me into the Southern section with pride.

The signed Faulkners and O’Connors and Weltys are in locked in a secure room, but the shelves are full of legendary names.

“This is where your book will go,” he told me, smiling.

“Really? I’m a Yankee, writing about a town 15 miles from the Canadian border.”

“Yeah, but it’s still a Southern book.”

Ah, Joyce. Bless your tweeting heart. Maybe Eudora is my real homegirl.