Leroy Dearman is twelve, and he lives on a llama farm in Mississippi. Life is perfect. It's true that his grandfather just died in the attic and that wild dogs kill a baby llama now and then, and it's true that one little sister curses him and the other one wets her pants. But up to the day Uncle Harris moves in, life looks like it's right out of a Walt Disney movie. No wonder the llamas greet each morning with a song. Uncle Harris arrives in a sports car, full of funny stories and new ideas. He manages to persuade Leroy's straitlaced parents to join him for cocktails in the evening. He sets up a pretty grand bachelor pad in the Dearman attic, with a telephone, a TV set, and a stack of Playboy magazines. He is, you might say, Romance itself. Once Uncle Harris moves in, life on the llama farm takes on an entirely different flavor. Leroy discovers those magazines. Electricity fills the Dearman house. Equilibrium tilts, conversation trails off, the atmospheric pressure twists--and lightning strikes. Leroy starts seeing things he's never seen before, like the very gifted baton-twirling teacher, and his world changes forever. Not since PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT has a novel looked so directly, hilariously, and bittersweetly at the heartbreak of puberty.
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Product dimensions:||4.96(w) x 7.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
One day in the summer when he turned twelve years old and when a fragrance of sweet alfalfa hay and llama musk was drifting through the windows and into the house on a breeze from the pastures and cool shade of the little barn where pigeons cooed in the rafters, Leroy Dearman realized that the day had finally come. What had been planned for so long could now be undertaken. Leroy's mama had company coming over, the Evil Queen, Leroy called her, who dressed all in black, with heavy makeup and real pale skin and long black hair and was known to be modern, with scary ways of speaking and smelly cigarettes from France. She was ugly, too--U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi, you're ugly--the schoolyard phrase would not leave Leroy's head. The Evil Queen had a new baby, so Leroy's sisters wouldn't give Leroy any trouble, Laurie and Molly, who would want to hang around the baby. Molly was the little one, three years old, bed wetter first class, redheaded, thick as a stump. Laurie, she was eight, lithe and blonde, that girl could cuss, slap you, too. Leroy's palms were sweating, his heart seemed to flutter. "Creepy-crawly," he whispered, to give himself courage. The Evil Queen and Leroy's mama had made plans at coffee hour at the church. The Queen, in her frightening modern way, had said, "Lunch, okay, but not at my house. Nobody should be forced to eat in a house where a dentist has slept, it's cruel and unusual, it's disgusting, and not at that sandwich place either, not the Flyspeck Cafe, their pies are good, but oh my God, I cannot, will not, fight with that little bitch about salad dressing again today, I do not have the strength, the war is over and that little redneck in the Howdy Partner apron won, it's inedible, her ranch dressing, it's vile, it ought to be banned by law, get your butt in that kitchen and get me something not outlawed by the Food and Drug Administration and take off that stupid apron before I rip it off your ugly ass and shove it down your throat, do I sound psychotic, Elsie, I hope I don't sound sort of out of my mind, I mean, I am out of my mind, I just don't want to sound that way." Ugly. Creepy-crawly.
Leroy breathed in the familiar fragrances of the farm, and doing this made him suddenly cautious. He decided he'd better check one more time to see if the coast was clear. Leroy's Uncle Harris lived in the attic now and kept magazines up there, grown-up magazines with pictures, Leroy had seen him sneak them in the house along with his newspapers, inside a bag of groceries, beneath his shirt. Uncle Harris was away from the house today and Leroy meant to see those pictures, Playboy and Penthouse, he'd seen their bright covers on the magazine stand at the drugstore in the village, so he had an idea what was inside. He had been waiting for the perfect day and now it had come, and as long as he was up there maybe he'd check out Uncle Harris's shirt drawers, too, his pants pockets, beneath his mattress, it couldn't hurt. He caught a glimpse of the vast vistas of boundary violation, open wide.
He walked up to the front of the house where his mama and the Evil Queen were sitting on the shaded front porch in the wicker furniture and said, "I ain't snooping," just in case. His mama and the Evil Queen were having glasses of iced tea with some mint sprigs that Leroy's mama had picked out in the side yard. They acted like they thought they might be pretty hot stuff, which they weren't, in Leroy's humble opinion. How hot could you be, living on a llama farm? Sunshine filtered through a few low clouds. The temperature was mild, the air was leaf-green and fragrant with buttercups. Here and there a single tree beyond the pasture fence, a thick-trunked black walnut, or a slender willow or tulip, caught an occasional bright ray, like a spotlight. A breeze came up that smelled a little like rain. A swarm of bees circled, looking for a tree.
Leroy's mama--Elsie was her name--she had made tuna salad sandwiches and deviled eggs for lunch. She had cut the crusts off the bread and used sprigs of watercress on the sandwiches, in the place of lettuce, la-di-da. She stood in front of the refrigerator with the door open. She said, "How much do you hate Kool-Aid?" The Evil Queen laughed, that witchy sound like pigeons in the barn, ooh-ooh-ooh, what was that ugly woman's real name?
Elsie saw Leroy standing against the door frame.
She said, "Leroy, you scared me."
He said, "I ain't snooping."
She said, "You are the oddest child."
The two women ignored Leroy, they were taking a little tour of the farm. Elsie showed the Evil Queen the pantry, the shelves of Mason jars filled with bright fruit, row after row of tomatoes, jars of Blue Lake green beans, new potatoes, okra, yellow corn, speckled lima beans, bread-and-butter pickles. The Evil Queen was a city lady, village anyhow, she said she liked to look at the farm, it was the perfect life, and you're so lucky, and like that.
Elsie said, "Come on outside with us, Leroy."
He said, "Why? I ain't going to snoop in the attic. You don't trust me. You've never trusted me."
She said, "Don't say ain't, honey."
Outside Elsie showed the Evil Queen the shed with tools and fence wire-stretching equipment and farm implements hung up on hooks along the wall. Leroy had to tag along, his sisters, too. He should have gone on and snooped in the attic when he had the chance. They went in the little barn, filled with sweet hay. The baby llamas came up looking for gorp, the sweetened grain Elsie gave them as treats. Pigeons cooed in the rafters. Leroy thought the Evil Queen might rise up into the rafters of the barn and perch there with them, that woman was ugly. Elsie held out a zinc bucket of the sweetened grain for the Evil Queen to dip her hand into. Her nails were long, they were enameled with deep purple polish. The Evil Queen scooped up the gorp and held it in her hand and when she felt the gentle lips of the llama suck it away like a little vacuum cleaner, she made that funny little witchy sound again, ooh. She did sound like the pigeons. She said, "I thought it would bite! I thought it would be all slobbery! Ooh."
Creepy-crawly, it was the attic calling for Leroy, Penthouse, Playboy. Leroy turned and walked away from his mama and the Evil Queen and went inside the house, the call was too strong to resist any longer. He let the screened door slap shut behind him when he went inside. He stood beneath the trapdoor and pulled a kitchen chair into the hallway and stood on it. He grabbed the hanging rope on the trapdoor and jumped off the chair and swung down like Tarzan on a vine. The door pulled open from above and slid down the metal gliders into the hall. Leroy went up into Uncle Harris's attic room. Behind him as he went he heard the soft, frantic bleating of one of the llamas, a young female up near the second row of pens, not far out in the pasture. He knew the animal had gotten her head stuck between the squares of wire, one of the young llamas, trying to reach a clump of sweeter grass. He imagined her little anvil-shaped head hooked in the fence. He imagined one of the male llamas pacing back and forth. It spat several times. Leroy reached the top of the stairs and rose up into the attic. Uncle Harris's made-up bed with two pillows, the bedside table, the little bookshelf with a few books, a rocking chair with a caned bottom and a ladder back, and the tasseled lamp with a fringed shade meant nothing to Leroy now. Not the tiny chest of drawers, the oval hook rug on the floor, the steep A-frame of the attic itself, its bare board floor and exposed beams, not the trousers on the chair, nothing held meaning for Leroy. He was looking for magazines. The magazines were there, Leroy had not been mistaken about that. They glowed in the dark, they were plutonium, that end of the attic room was bathed in a strange light, their colors shown like a cache of gold in a fairy tale, a sound of deep-throated electrical thrumming emanated from the stack. He had suspected they would be here. He had seen them come into the house, oh, he had known they would be here, all right. He just had not known they would be so easy to find, so immediately in full view. He had expected to have to search for them, maybe not to find them at all. He realized now that he had halfway hoped he would not find them. There they were. They were not strewn about, not hidden away. There were no drawers to search through. As if they were as innocent as any other detail of the llama farm, they sat quietly glowing and thrumming in a stack on Uncle Harris's bedside table.
Leroy noticed that he was trembling. He listened to be sure no one had entered the house. He knew that his mama must have unhooked the she-llama from the fence by now. The tour with the Evil Queen could not last much longer. His legs felt weak. He sat on the edge of Uncle Harris's bed. The magazines were inches away. He could smell them, a manly perfume, like musk. They glowed with a rich yellow light. He tried to regularize his breathing. He breathed deeply a few times, and this caused him to feel light-headed. He picked up one of the magazines. He held it in his lap, not even open. Every place the magazine touched him felt like electricity. It buzzed, it crackled at his touch. He forced his eyes down, forced them not to close in fear, he looked at the magazine.
On the cover stood a woman wearing a western vest, she had on very tight shorts, which seemed to have come unzipped. Leroy hated to have somebody point out when his pants were unzipped, so he said nothing. He almost said, "Hi," but managed not to say this either. He held the magazine in his lap. He looked at the cover for a long time. For a long time he only looked at the strip of flesh from her throat to her belly button, where the vest was parted. He hoped that by looking hard he might cause the vest to open farther. It did not. He looked briefly at the half unzipped shorts and averted his eyes. He wasn't sure he was ready to work his magic there, it seemed a little risky. He studied the woman's face. He wished he knew her a little better, maybe he wouldn't feel quite so awkward looking at her like this. She was smiling, he noticed, a nice smile too, real sincere, she had excellent teeth, extra white and not a bit bucked. He thought his own teeth were beginning to buck out a little. He pushed at them with his thumb, he did this whenever nobody was looking, trying to coax them back in a little. Anyway, he was glad she was smiling, that was a relief, it pleased him to think she was happy. He wasn't sure why she was so happy, come to think of it. It didn't make much sense for her to be this happy, under the circumstances. Somebody had taken her picture before she really even finished getting dressed. It seemed like to Leroy she might be embarrassed, or even angry. He knew he would be angry, he'd die of embarrassment if somebody took his picture with his pants unzipped. He looked at the photograph more closely. Something wasn't right here. Those clothes, for example. They weren't even her clothes. Those shorts couldn't have belonged to her, they were much too little. Look at that, they wouldn't meet at the waist. No wonder she couldn't get them zipped up right. Somebody had put this lady's little sister's shorts in her dresser drawers 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. This was one of those jokes that just wasn't funny, if you wanted Leroy's personal opinion. His penis was stiff and aching and he had to adjust it to one side of his pants, but that didn't keep him from feeling indignant about the practical joker who popped in on this perfectly nice lady and took her picture while she was getting dressed in clothes about ten sizes too small for her. How could you stand it? How could anybody ever go to school again, face your friends? It was awful. Boy, that riled Leroy, that really fried him, how could anybody trick this nice lady like that?
He kept looking at the picture. His you-know-what was seriously stiff now. He wondered if he ought not let it out for a little while, give it some air, it could smother in there, all cramped up. Something about this picture, though. Where did she think she was going in that outfit in the first place? Even if she'd had time to get finished dressing, even if she'd noticed these dinky clothes couldn't possibly belong to her, Leroy couldn't think of a single place on earth where she could have worn those shorts and a western-style vest and fit in. Nobody else would be wearing anything close to this, you could bank on it. Did she really imagine she could wear this getup and blend in with any group of normal people she'd ever heard of, even for one second? If you looked close you could see that the vest didn't have any buttons on it anyway, no buttonholes for them to go through. Well, see, right there. 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. She'd never get a refund now, she'd already worn it. She should have tried it on at the store. He unzipped his pants to relieve a little strain on the fabric, to give one part of himself a little breathing room, even if there was no oxygen getting to his brain. He turned the page.
He turned many pages. Writing writing writing writing writing, some shoe advertisements. He turned the page again. Well, what do you know, he couldn't believe his eyes, here was somebody he recognized. It was another picture of the same woman he had seen on the front cover, that poor girl. What had she done with her vest? She'd lost her vest! And where were her pants, for God's sake? What on earth had she done with her pants? Not only that. She had breasts. Nipples on the ends, one each, two total, count them for yourself. She had hair between her legs, like a triangle, right on her you-know-what place. Do you really need to hear any more?
That was not all, though. She was wearing a big white cowboy hat and a gun belt. She was pointing two silvery six-shooters out into the room she was standing in. At least she might be able to make a citizen's arrest of the person with the camera. She was wearing cowboy boots with yellow sunbursts at the ankles. She was still smiling, big smile, full set of white teeth, you could count them.
Leroy kept looking at the magazine. One part of him seemed to see the six-shooters pointing at it and that part was reaching for the rafters. He patted it to calm it down. Leroy understood now, he understood something about the woman in the picture, and it was not good, not a bit, it was bad, in fact, plenty bad. The lady in the picture suffered from mental illness, was retarded possibly, deranged, completely out of touch with reality. She needed help. She would never get her pants on now, even if she could find a pair that fit her. She would have to start all over, dressing herself, and Leroy had no confidence that she could do it. He hoped she wouldn't try to pull on her pants over those damn boots. They'd never make it. Leroy had tried that stunt on school mornings, half asleep, and it doesn't work, just normal shoes, not even boots. Put the camera down, asshole. Find this lady's clothes. Where were her friends, her parents, her minister? The world seemed to be caving in around Leroy.
Just then the porch door downstairs opened and closed. Leroy heard the sound and sat still, with the magazine open in his lap. He looked at his penis and suspected it would never go back to normal. He stuffed it back inside his pants and zipped up and listened. He expected to hear voices but he did not, only footsteps. Only one set of footsteps. He closed the magazine and placed it on the bedside table. He stood and walked close to the trapdoor, the better to hear whoever was downstairs. He placed each foot on the floor carefully to prevent the boards from squeaking. He stood very still, just beside the hole in the floor. He heard the Evil Queen's baby crying a little. He heard the Evil Queen's voice. He understood now that the Evil Queen was going to kill the baby. He went to the attic window and looked out, the side of the house toward the llama lot. He saw his mother and sisters there, among the llamas. He watched a young doe go bounding away from Elsie like a spring-toy. The little tail was standing straight up, waving like a flag. Leroy walked down the attic steps without trying to hide. He didn't bother to put the trapdoor back up. He was probably too late to save the baby. He felt like he was smothering. Smothering in pain, he guessed he would have said, if he'd thought to say anything at all. He surprised the Evil Queen, whose back was to him, bent over the child, at the bed. He said, "Don't" She looked up. She was hideous, pale as a witch. He started to say, "Don't kill the baby," but then decided not to. The Evil Queen finished changing the wet diaper, it took only a few seconds, and when she finished she lifted the infant, who had stopped crying now. She balanced it on her hip. Leroy realized with a shock that the Evil Queen was not ugly after all, she was beautiful. He couldn't believe it, but she was. In the strangest way she reminded him of the woman in the magazine, though they looked nothing alike. Suddenly he knew why people fell in love and wanted to marry, he understood why they wanted to have children, to live together for a lifetime. He couldn't believe he had ever thought she could harm her baby. She was so beautiful the sight of her made him ache, her washboardlike bony chest, the downy hair on her arms. He heard his heart begin to speak in his own silent voice, it cried out to her, words vague and surprising and indistinct, I want you, I need you, I love you, he understood Elvis Presley at last. The Evil Queen smiled a warm smile. She turned around. She said, "Why, Leroy, hello. I thought I heard somebody. Did you sneak up on me?"
That evening, when the sun went down, a big yellow ball beyond the red clay hills in the hazy west, the llamas, who were many colors of brown and rust and pure white and pure black and mottled, turned to face the sun, as they did each evening, and again when it rose in the morning, and they flicked their big corn-shuck ears, they shrugged the coarse fur of their broad backs, they stretched their giraffelike necks, and they began to groan, low, low, and then louder, to sing their strange llama-song, first one llama, and then another, and another, until all the llamas were singing in their rich individual voices, blended in a strange chorus. They sang each day to the rising and the setting sun. Leroy's daddy, a one-armed man, came in on the tractor from the fields, Uncle Harris, wearing one of his Hawaiian-print shirts, looked up from his newspaper, Leroy's mama dried her hands and walked out on the porch, Laurie, Molly, Leroy, too, all of them stood at the end of the day and listened in the last sunshine to the song of the llamas.
Later when Leroy was lying in his bed, wearing only his crinkly pajama bottoms on this warm night, he looked out his window where there was moonlight, yellow as gold in the tree limbs, and thought of the naked woman in the pictures in Uncle Harris's magazine. He wondered if he could be in love with her--he thought he was in love with her--because when he thought of her face, the nakedness of her flesh, the innocence of her smile, he wanted nothing more than to stay near her forever, to save her each day from some new danger, fire, wild beasts, evil men. He wondered how he could kiss her, as she was so much taller than himself, then realized he didn't know how to kiss, not the kind of kiss a boy would need to know about if he were in love with this woman. His head spun, the retarded magazine lady and the Evil Queen had become confused in his mind, they seemed now to be the same person. He imagined kissing his mother's friend. All his dreams were heartbreaking, and all were vague in details. He found that he did not want to touch himself in the way he had in the attic, and then as he was realizing this he found that he was touching himself and thinking of her, this composite person, dark and fair, and he lay and touched and breathed hard and then did not need to do this anymore for a while.
His mama came in later, to say good night, as she always did, making her rounds of the children. She sat on the edge of his small bed.
She said, "Are you all right, honey?"
He said, "I guess so."
She said, "I worry about you sometimes."
He lay in the moonlight and could not think what to say. He could feel the warmth of her rear end against his leg. An electrical spark seemed to flash between their two bodies. He didn't want his mama's face getting mixed up with the faces of the magazine lady and the Evil Queen. He wondered if she knew he had been in the attic. He wondered if she knew about the magazines. He wondered whether she had come in before he finished with his touching and breathing and had seen him; it was possible, he had become too involved in his daydreams to pay close attention to whoever might have passed by his bedroom door.
He said, "I think something is wrong with me."
His mama said, "What is it, Leroy?"
"I don't know."
She patted his leg. She said, "Well, you're growing up. That's one thing, I suppose."
He said, "Tell me the story."
She said, "Oh, honey, no, not that old story. Not again."
He said, "Tell it, Mama."
She said, "Oh, well, all right, let's see." She told the familiar tale, the one the children always wanted to hear. She told about the day she fell in love with their daddy. "We were young," she said. "We hadn't known each other very long. Your daddy had an old car. He took me far out in the country on a long drive. He stopped beside a big field and parked the car. I thought he was going to kiss me. It was getting close to dark. Instead he said, `Listen.' I listened and heard them running, thirty of them, or more. I thought they were horses when I saw them. Their hooves were flying. They sounded like thunder in the hills. They came closer. I saw the slender bodies, the long necks, legs so thin you wondered how they held them up. I saw their faces, the pointed snouts and big ears and bulging eyes. They were all colors. Llamas. I had never seen a llama. They were running for the fun of it. That's when I fell in love." She stopped. Leroy lay for a while in the moonlight with his mama beside him.
He said, "Is that the end?"
She kissed him on the forehead. "I guess so," she smiled.
He said, "Did he kiss you?"
She said, "Leroy!"
He said, "Did he?"
She said, "Oh, well, sure he did, honey." She blushed in a way that Leroy loved to see.
She said, "You are growing up, aren't you! Is my young man growing up? First thing I know, you'll be heading for trouble."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I once heard someone say that Lewis Nordan is the one writer who makes him laugh out loud. He went on to tell me of the time he was reading the Mississippi author¿s latest novel on a crowded airplane. "The chuckles turned to giggles, the giggles became gales of laughter, and then, tears streaming down my face, I lost complete control of myself."Nordan is, indeed, infectious. To test my friend¿s theory, I bought a copy of "Lightning Song" in an airport bookstore. I should have known better. We were flying over Indiana when the flight attendant told me that if I didn¿t quiet down, they would have to take away my book. The rest of the passengers broke into spontaneous applause.Reading "Lightning Song" is worth breaking a few FAA regulations. Nordan has made a name for himself with characters who are, to be polite, eccentric. He¿s filled "Lightning Song" with a cast direct from David Lynch and William Faulkner.The central character, Leroy Dearman, is twelve and lives on a llama farm with his parents, two younger sisters and grandfather. Each morning, the llamas greet the sunrise by bursting into song and Leroy awakens from his erotic dreams of the local baton twirler, Ruby Rae. Leroy¿s father calls himself Swami Don, has a withered arm and is infatuated with "an Indian maiden" where he works. His mother is obsessed with the kidnapped Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. One of his sisters totes around a loaded gun, the other wets her pants. His uncle, a handsome sweet-talker, arrives and sets about seducing Leroy¿s mother. Then there¿s the "New People" down the road¿a bohemian couple who talk in affected accents and dress up in costumes. Surrounded by so many off-kilter characters, it¿s no wonder that, whenever he finds himself at a loss for words, Leroy digs in his belly button for lint.The Waltons, they ain¿t. But Nordan brings as much poignancy to his books as that Appalachian family ever gave us in an hour¿s worth of television. Beneath the laughter, there is sweetness and heartbreak and Nordan never lets us forget that he cares, he truly cares, about his characters.While "Lightning Song" isn¿t as focused and as satisfying as "The Sharpshooter Blues" (the closest thing to a masterpiece Nordan¿s written so far), this still ranks high on the list of must-reads. If you have yet to discover Lewis Nordan, get yourself on down to a bookstore right now.Just make sure he¿s not part of your carry-on luggage.