The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 59-81
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Boy with Loaded Gun:
The Confessions of Lewis Nordan
Gregory L. Morris
In the hot summer of 1981, in a place called George's Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Lewis (Buddy) Nordan began constructing, as Nordan tells the story, the life of his most memorable character, Sugar Mecklin. Hastily preparing for a reading and having nothing at hand to read, Nordan started putting paragraphs to legal paper, inventing the story that would become "Sugar Among the Freaks" and the character who would occupy his imagination for the next twenty years. Nordan, in his own self-conscious recollection of the moment, puts it this way: "to say this only slightly more dramatically than I felt it at the time—Sugar Mecklin and his whole strange family were being born beneath my hand" ("Foreword" xxii).
Sugar and his "whole strange family" would come to life in the stories in Nordan's first two collections, Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair (1983) and The All-Girl Football Team (1986), and more fully (if not coherently) in the novel-in-stories, Music of the Swamp (1991). In these fictions, Nordan creates a biography of both place and character, shaping the world of Sugar Mecklin as he grows up in the Delta backwater of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi. It was a world distinctly familiar to Nordan, who too was born and spent his youth in a small Delta town—Itta Bena, Mississippi—and who came to know well some of the weird [End Page 59] magic of that world. Almost naturally, as if as readers we might expect it—and certainly as many writers before him have done—Nordan invested his character with elements of the author's own experience, filling certain blank spots in Sugar's biography with details from his own life.
In doing so, Nordan played to what seems a common, insistent desire, among both the general and the critical reader, to read the Sugar stories as autobiography—as Nordan's autobiography, and not as Sugar's. For example, in an essay on Music of the Swamp, James F. Nicosia describes the book as a "closely knit collection of autobiographical stories" (68); meanwhile, Edward J. Dupuy, in an essay whose title clearly suggests his perspective—"Memory, Death, the Delta, and St. Augustine: Autobiography in Lewis Nordan's The Music of the Swamp"—declares outright: "Nordan's works, in short, are autobiographical" (98). Indeed, the nature of Nordan's stories—and of Sugar Mecklin's colorfully-voiced narrations—seemed to excite a kind of expectation and desire for such an autobiographical fiction. As readers of Nordan's work and as auditors of Sugar's wonderfully colored voice, we earnestly want Lewis Nordan to be Sugar Mecklin:
But as Nordan himself explained, in describing that humid, fruitful evening of Sugar's creation: I knew I had just invented a boy whom I loved and wanted to know better. I knew that if I was lucky and worked hard, I might be able to write more stories about him. He was surely a part of me, and yet when he spoke of his parents, it was clear they were equal parts of me as well. Sugar Mecklin was not me—no more or less than Gilbert Mecklin was—but he could speak for me, for all my contradictory parts, and now he seemed free to do so. I think of this moment as a particular turning point in the process of my finding what I meant to write and how I meant to write it.
To be sure, Nordan knew what he was doing when he began cross- fertilizing the fictional with the autobiographical, and so in some ways encourages such an autobiographical reading of his work. But the autobiography he creates in his fiction is that of his central character, who tells most of the stories of his life himself and in a voice that is distinct and attractive and memorable. The autobiography of Sugar Mecklin is, moreover, part of Sugar...