Boy with Loaded Gun: A Memoirby Lewis Nordan
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Lewis Nordan is famous for his special vision of the Mississippi Delta. His characters, for whom the closest-though hopelessly inadequate-description might be "eccentrics," share the stage with swamp elves and midgets living in the backyard. His fiction is unlike anybody else's and is as dark, hilarious, and affecting as any ever written.
It's also writing that lays bare the agony of adolescence and plows, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer once put it, "the fields of puzzling wonder that precede the responsibilities and disappointments of adulthood."
What bred and fed Nordan's imagination, his originality, his indefatigable sense of humor? The answers aren't obvious. But now that Lewis Nordan produces, directs, and stars in his own story, we just might find out.
Nordan's mother was widowed when he was a baby, and she went back to her home town to remarry and raise her only son "Buddy." Itta Bena, Mississippi, was a prototypical fifties Delta town, so drowsy that even before puberty, Nordan had made his escape plans. What happened next was pretty typical-a stint in the Navy, college in Mississippi, very early marriage, young fatherhood, alcoholism, infidelities, broken hearts. But in Nordan's hands, the typical turns into the transcendent and, at the heart of things, there is always the irrepressible laughter.
Horrible things and horribly funny things happen in Boy with Loaded Gun, but it's that heart that leads us through Lewis Nordan's dark tunnel and back into the light.
Nordan was just such a child. He was the class clown with little, if any, impulse control. His life was marked by obsessions. From the comic books and TV of childhood he moved on in adolescence to a longing to get out of his little Southern hometown. He clung to mail order as a way of communicating with the outside world, and even ordered an old Army Surplus pistol out of the back of a barber shop magazine. His obsession was so strong and impulses so out of control that he once attempted to murder his father with this gun. He didn't succeed, but it seemed to lay the groundwork for a life wrought with obsession, crazy schemes and loss of control.
Nordan writes in his memoir of a lifetime of alcohol abuse, shut-off emotions and marital problems. It is a story that could have easily buried itself in melodrama and self-pity, but thankfully Nordan doesn't allow himself such easy pleasures. Instead, he exposes the tender underbelly of his demons with honesty and humor, never once inviting the reader to pity him. He takes full responsibility for the lack of control and misdirected anger that characterize his choices in life. This is a book for adult readers, not only because of the language and sexual content, but because the life traumas expressed are the kind that most young people have not had to face yet, and therefore won't identify with. Long-term alcoholism, marital affairs and the death of a child are tragedies Nordan explores with truth and an undying faith in the human ability to keep going. This is an honest journey into the soul of a man who experienced more freakish events than most, and is simply sharing what he learned from them. The tragedy is not the focus; it is the lessons learned that take center stage.
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Read an Excerpt
Zen and the Art of Mail Order
Sometime after school started in the fall of that year, I began to order things from mail-order catalogs. Montgomery Ward was my favorite, and my first order was a gift for my parents. Somewhere near the middle of the catalog I found the order sheet, which I ripped jaggedly out, and I began to fill it out in pencil in my pathetically childish hand. I carefully spelled out the letters of my name on the top line of the form, only to discover that I had failed to follow directions and should have noted "last name first" in the first blank. Laboriously I erased and, in the smudged space that resulted, began again. Name, address, telephone, name of item, item number, size, color, price, and so on. For the first time I felt in communication with an exterior geography, almost another world. That was the point of this exercise, far more than the gift that was its immediate object.
After the long night in Shiloh's, after falling in love with my father's midget, the city limits of Itta Bena began to seem a prison to me. I was not ready for my escape, but for the first time I could see beyond the walls. Would Ward's even send me what I ordered? Would my money disappear into the ether? I was not sure. I was not at all confident my message would reach its destination, any more than are those scientists who send out signals to the stars in hopes of contacting extraterrestrial life. They are not surprised or disappointed on a daily basis at the silence of their stars, nor would I be.
My task was made more difficult, though not less thrilling, by the fact that I had hidden myself in the clothes closet of my room, among the must of rubber boots and malodorous shoes and wool clothing on hangers. I don't know why the secrecy of this act was important to me. To have anyone suspect that I was so presumptuous as to believe I could actually make contact with the outside world-well, I had to hide, I couldn't face anyone with such a presumption. There was no light in the closet, so along with my pencil and the catalog I took a flashlight, which with difficulty I managed to balance and to shine upon the page, and with cramped-up joy I copied out the proper item numbers and other information. It was hot in the closet and I sweated like the Missouri.
Later my mother said she had heard me giggling in there, and I am sure this is true, so much happiness did this secret deed, this first communication with the universe, give me. My mother's use of the catalog was to inspire dreams of worlds she did not really believe existed and was resigned to know only in fantasy, but I saw real worlds toward which I might flee, if ever Itta Bena should nod and loosen its firm clutch on me. Montgomery Ward was an escape hatch, its opening as thin as a reed, but somehow I might squeeze through it and pop out the other end into rarer air. In the world beyond, Shiloh's Store and what I had seen there would not exist, or would do so only as a distant memory, itself more dream than true.
Mother's Day was near and Father's Day not far behind, and so when I saw in the catalog two painted oversized coffee cups and saucers, one with an image of a mustachioed, derby-hatted gentleman riding an old-fashioned big-wheeled bicycle, and on the other a lady in a long dress and plumed picture-hat riding a similar vehicle, I had all the excuse I needed to make first contact with whatever planets revolved around Ward's newly discovered sun. "Enclose check or money order," I read aloud, inside the closet, holding steady the flashlight's beam. "Do not send cash through the mail." I would have to figure this one out. Discovering a solution to paying for the gifts would be a valuable lesson, which would come in handy later on, with subsequent purchases.
I remember standing at a window in the old post office that I was scarcely tall enough to see into, and purchasing from the postmaster Mr. Banyon that first money order, or as I would have almost been able to say at the time, my first ticket out. I had money of my own. I had never had any expenses, so whatever money came my way had always been stuffed into a drawer and had been piling up for some time. My mother paid me an allowance for certain small jobs around the house, and occasionally I ran errands for older people in the neighborhood-trips to the market for bread and milk, or to Mr. Beard's Drug Store for a prescription-and sometimes I accepted a dime, a quarter, whatever was offered. We had a push mower that I used to mow our yard, for which task my father paid me more. Later I used the mower for the small yards of our neighbors, and then my father bought a power mower, with a bright yellow frame and a red Briggs&Stratton engine and a pull rope you had to rewrap each time, and my lawn-mowing business increased and made me rich.
By the time the package arrived at the post office-a yellow slip in our home mailbox addressed to me told me to pick it up-I had forgotten that I ordered the cups and saucers and felt a little frightened that somehow I might have done something wrong as I answered the summons of its message.
The gifts were a success, my parents loved them. The painted cups were more gay and fanciful in real life than in the catalog, everyone was impressed and pleased with my self-reliance and good sense and generosity. My mother was practically in tears. "You are the most thoughtful child. I'm sorry I said you were odd." None of that is important. The importance of this event was that it opened a universe to me. There was intelligent life on the stars, and I had made first contact, received the first clear signals. A power of distances built inside me. Now on to the galaxies, wherever mail order dwelled.
Comic books offered a host of send-away possibilities. I joined Junior G-Men, I got the badge, the code, the secret decoder ring, the fingerprinting kit, the collapsible spyglass. I joined the Dick Tracy fan club and got similar items. I joined several fan clubs, in fact, including Little LuLu (which encouraged me to keep a diary), Pogo, and Joe Palooka. I ordered fake money, sea horses, itching powder, invisible ink, a squirt flower, a palm buzzer, a nose flute, jacks and a rubber ball, a book of paper dolls. For a while I stuck with "free" items, which I understood were not really free and that I didn't want in any case-stamp collections, trading cards, Charles Atlas information, art lessons, and Mexican jumping beans. I sent back the stamps and jumping beans and did not follow through on the others. The whole point was to make contact.
At first it was. The world was out there. It knew my name, it knew my address. I went back to Ward's catalog reinvigorated. The items became more expensive. More money was required, so I worked twice as hard. I ordered a magic set. It had a collapsible magic wand, a top hat made of collapsible paper, decks of regular cards, decks of trick cards, in which every card was the same, and a book that described dozens of card tricks, almost all of them too complicated or requiring too much manual dexterity to be of any help to me. It had "magic" water glasses that you could pour water into and then turn upside down and they seemed to be empty. There was a similar trick with newspaper and a milk bottle. The set had steel rings that supposedly you could make come apart and put back together, though I never figured out how. It had colored scarves and devices with long rubber bands that would make those scarves disappear from your hand by jerking them quickly behind your back. I could only do about three of the tricks in this elaborate set. I was not discouraged, not in the least.
I ordered a ventriloquist's dummy. It was an amazing piece of work. I wonder whether such a thing can even be ordered so easily today, let alone priced so that a child in my circumstances might afford to buy it. The head and hands and feet were carved of wood. The dummy already had a name, printed on the box and on a tag around its neck, and coincidentally the name was the same as my own, Buddy. Buddy was painted with freckles and large stationary eyes and resembled Howdy Doody slightly, and eerily it resembled me a little as well. When you put your hand inside him, from the back, and got hold of the controls, the head and mouth moved with almost scary precision and reality. There was an instruction pamphlet describing ways to make the dummy move effectively and to create a comic impression of reality, and another pamphlet describing ventriloquism, which it insisted was an illusion, not a real "voice throwing," though both concepts were somewhat over my head and I got little out of them. The dummy's clothes, I was disappointed to see, were supposed to indicate a "hick" or "greenhorn," which I already knew myself to be, and so this part of the illusion was the opposite of what I had had in mind.
Nevertheless, I loved Buddy and practiced endlessly at throwing my voice and not moving my lips, reading and rereading the puzzling instructions. The reason I finally gave up working with the dummy was that I discovered I had nothing to say. I would hold Buddy and speak in my strained falsetto, but the words that came out were not interesting. "Hello, Buddy," I would say in my regular voice.
"Hello, Buddy," the dummy would say in his falsetto.
"Is there an echo in here?" I would say.
"Is there an echo in here?" Buddy would say.
I wanted more. I wanted the words that would go beyond mere contact with this exterior world. I wanted words that came from so deep inside me that when I heard their sound, perceived their meaning, I would become possessed of a new self, somehow, one that might someday leave Itta Bena and exist, nay thrive, in another world. I poked through the box the dummy came in, looking for a pamphlet telling me what words to speak to produce the interior, spiritual results I so vaguely, and yet so passionately, hoped to effect. I found nothing.
Use of this excerpt from BOY WITH LOADED GUN may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:
Copyright c 2000 by Lewis Nordan. All rights reserved.
What People are Saying About This
Lewis Nordan "gets us to laugh at the whole of human existence--the pity, the horror, the vanity, the courage--and leaves us with a more profound sense of it all."
Meet the Author
Lewis Nordan was a professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh for many years and the author of seven books of fiction and a memoir. His awards include three American Library Association Notable Book citations, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction, the Mississippi Authors Award for fiction, and the Southern Book Critics Award for fiction. He died in 2012.
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