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  • The Retaliator: Norman Mailer in Arkansas
  • Michael Gills (bio)


I shouldn’t be saying a word this. It’s unseemly, and coarse and vulgar and downright abrasive to the sensibilities of Arkansawyers in general, and it’ll come back to bite me on the butt. Floradee, my maternal grandmother, would not approve, nor would Mama for that matter, though they both have very much at stake in this story, having been single mothers in the rural south, uneducated but colorful, fierce beautiful women whose men had been drunks and gamblers, hooligans and serial abusers, and–yes–cheating adulterers to the bone. I never knew one woman growing up who hadn’t been beaten, lied to and cheated on, and left to take care of the mess on their own. In my part of Arkansas, tucked down under the Ozarks where whole counties are dry from the blue laws, where we’re poor as dogs and I never one time saw anyone fill their tank to the brim with gas or buy four new tires all at the same time, or have a credit card past the first billing, it wasn’t uncommon for us to have to resort to things to get by. Uncle stole a truckful of saddles and western bridles that got him thrown in the pokey. Cousin Butch actually met his first wife through a jailhouse window, saw her walking up the sidewalk in jean shorts split up on the sides.

My blood father’d been sent to the farm for smuggling marijuana in the belly of a Santy suit, and O. W., my stepfather, got his time for breaking the cop’s jaw who’d been sent to deliver Mama’s divorce papers. I don’t mean to imply in the slightest that I’m riding the high horse. To the contrary, I’ve got my own stuff packed up and put away, and I have not forgotten it, thank you. To tell the truth, I’d just as soon not go rooting through the green grass growing over my people’s septic tank again, but Eric Miles Williamson’s asked me to write an essay on the subject of “Writers We Love To Hate,” and, you see, I’ve got this connection there. So here goes. Forgive me, Jesus.

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Let’s just say, there’s this place called Russellville, in Arkansas, that I had the privilege of getting to know one year, when I was hired as part of a national job search as Asst. Professor and Director of Creative Writing for the Department of English at Arkansas Tech University, a college in what had once been a cow pasture that overlooked Arkansas Nuclear One, the lone reactor in the natural State. My two-year-old daughter’d say “hot hot, daddy,” when I drove her to Cow Jumped Over the Moon Day Care on my teaching days on campus. And this campus and this English department, well it had a history. I’d been hired myself to replace a Mr. Baxter Clarence Hall, a man whose first novel, The Burning Season (1990), had been published by Putnam and made him semi-famous. “Not since the time of Thomas Wolff has such a voice been heard,” wrote Erskine Caldwell in the book blurb. At that time, living in around the Ozarks was: Charles Portis, James Whitehead, Bill Harrison, Otto Salassi, Donald Harrington, Skip Hays, Miller Williams, Lewis Nordan, Ellen Gilchrist, Floyd Collins, Dale Ray Phillips. McCarthy was out in the woods somewhere on the Texas of Texarkana. You name it, writers were everywhere. The place had history, but it was dry, in order to buy as much as a bottle of wine one had to hop in the truck, hit the interstate, drive through Atkins, Pickle Processing Capitol of the World, to Blackwell, where these ginormous liquor barns sprawled on either side of the highway in the middle of nowhere, so the clerks kept sawed offs under the cash register—I saw one one time, give me the jimmies.

So it’s not so far out that in April, 1975—when I was fifteen a living...


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