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Austin Chronicle Between the Lines

OCTOBER 19, 1998: 

Summer of Deliverance

When Christopher Dickey was eight years old, his father, the poet James Dickey, took him aside and told him a story. He had been married to someone else, an Australian woman whom he had met during the war. She had died of blood poisoning, he said, and then he had come home and married Christopher's mother.

Christopher never really pressed his father for more information. The awareness of this unknown, dead woman who had known his father before he and his mother had was a secret to be kept between his father and himself. But all through his childhood it remained in the back of his mind, an unsettling reminder of how fragile the facts of his life were. Until he was an adult, he had no idea it was all a story, made up because James Dickey thought it would make him a better writer to imagine it.

Nothing real was ever good enough for the author of Cherrylog Road and Deliverance. Reality was of value only insofar as it inspired more interesting fictions. And this Gatsby-like impulse toward improvement drove him to become one of this century's major American poetic voices. In reaction to his father's attraction to lying, Christopher Dickey became a journalist, a man for whom truth carried the weight of imperative. Summer of Deliverance, his book about life with James Dickey, is clearly powered by this imperative: In plain language and with controlled, occasionally mordant wit, Christopher Dickey details the reality of a life too unbelievable to be made up, of failures and losses too painful not to mention, and of heroism finer than stories could tell.

What makes Dickey's Summer of Deliverance stand out in a seemingly endless season of memoirs about hardship, family, and art, and stand above the typical run of heartbreak tell-alls in which the offspring of a great auteur spills the beans about life with Mum or Dad, is the stunning familiarity of the emotion that Dickey musters. A particularly quotable line in Summer of Deliverance is, "My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son-of-a-bitch I hated, and that last fact was just a part of me." Like the journalist he is, Dickey starts out by covering the facts, the known quantities of his father's occupations and achievements -- and then slides with elegant saltiness into the invisible terrain of family. Our parents are our feelings about them, our frustrations and longings and old hurts, and they are also the people they are, separate from us, beyond our control -- but still weirdly attached to us by ties that stretch and attenuate but never, damn them, break.

With journalistic detachment, Dickey moves from anger to ambivalence to respect and back again. Clear-eyed, he describes his father's failures of nerve, weaknesses of ego, and all the numerous small brutalities that Jim Dickey was capable of inflicting on those who loved him. James Dickey could elevate you to godhood in your own eyes -- and then, with a breathless spontaneity, take all that glory away. And yet it seems clear that Dickey was not motivated as much by a taste for cruelty as he was by his own relentlessly driving insecurities. James Dickey was enthralled with, as he said, "the creative possibilities of the lie." He seems to have used lies as buffers against intimacy, means to achieving the love and adoration which he felt he never received in actuality. In order to please his audiences at readings, he relied on a formula that he had found to be tried and true: Big Jim Dickey, the pickin' and grinnin' regional poet. When he was drunk enough, he tried the Big Jim routine with his family too. But the other side of the person who insisted he be called "Fun Man" consisted of a ruthless perfectionism that refused to accept the very real accomplishments of his sons and daughter, preferring instead the achievements that he had imagined for them. He drove his children to excellence, but also to obsession.

This is not, at first glance, a lovable man.

This is not, at first glance, a man easy to forgive.

"Remember me as I was, " Christopher Dickey quotes his father as saying not long before his death. In executing his father's charge, Dickey searched through decades of old papers, notes, journals, and letters to augment his memories and his conversations with his father. He found that some things he had always supposed true were fictional, such as his father's previous wife, and discovered that there were things he had never known about his father -- mostly connections that anger had not previously allowed him to consider. To the tragedy of Christopher Dickey's family, and the bitterness of his mother's death from alcohol-related causes, is added the sadness of James Dickey's fallibility and fear.

While Summer of Deliverance probably falls short of biography, Christopher Dickey's portrait of a son discovering his father is revealing and brave. Dickey makes vividly clear the James Dickey who held his son's hand in the hospital after Christopher had broken his arm; the man who sprinted to catch an open ski lift that his younger son, then three years old, had toddled into; the man who boasted of "making his children's heads" with doses of Coleridge and Beowulf (easy to see why Dickey describes himself as a serious little kid). Above all, this book is rivetingly tender, one long, wonderfully written testament of forgiveness and redemption. This is the mystery of family: that the people in it can be both tremendously powerful and hopelessly weak, that your connection to them attenuates, grows thinner and vaguer, but never quite snaps, that eventually, inevitably, it pulls you home. -- Barbara Strickland



Literary New Orleans in the Modern World

I would have bought Literary New Orleans in the Modern World at Faulkner House Books, hidden across Pirate's Alley from the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. The Chronicle saved me a trip and 30 bucks. Any writer who has spent time in New Orleans knows the way it works on the imagination, and Professor Richard S. Kennedy's latest collection of essays, a sequel to Literary New Orleans: Essays and Meditations, captures the creative allure and belletristic importance of the City That Care Forgot.

Fiction set in New Orleans has always struggled to transcend "local color," a pejorative term in literary circles applied to much of what was written about the South following the Civil War. The city's exotic reputation has provided generations of dramatists, novelists, and cultural observers with sensational material, but rarely produced anything universal in appeal or influence. Writing in the first volume, Lewis P. Simpson argues convincingly that only four New Orleans novels have risen above "local color" since the late 19th century: George Washington Cable's novel of Creole society, The Grandissimes (1880) and Kate Chopin's classic The Awakening (1889); and among modern works, Walker Percy's 1961 novel, The Moviegoer, and John Kennedy Toole's posthumously published The Confederacy of Dunces (1980). These four works bookend the last century of literature in the Crescent City. What was written between them is the subject of the Kennedy compilations.

Among the nine essays in the new collection, the best are Inez Hollander Lake's piece on the all-but-forgotten novelist Hamilton Basso, David C. Estes' scholarly appraisal of Nora Zeale Hurston's groundbreaking work on African-American spiritualism, and W. Kenneth Holditch's musings on Ignatius Reilly's doomed creator, John Kennedy Toole. Although uneven in the treatment of their subjects, most of the brief studies will be interesting to both occasional tourists and literary expatriates. The 1998 volume is more substantial than the first, which in places maintains the depth of a tourist brochure. Professor Holditch's essays in both books carry more local authority given his reputation as a raconteur and scholar.

Despite a few duds, the essays in Kennedy's anthologies are a welcome addition to the ever-increasing body of Southern literary scholarship. In a 1914 New Orleans short story, Lafcadio Hearn wrote, "It is too hot to write anything practical and serious -- let us dream dreams." Good advice for writers in Austin or New Orleans. -- Cary L. Roberts



The American Way of Death Revisited

It's too bad that Robert Waltrip never met Jessica Mitford. It would have been quite entertaining. The too-smart-by-half Mitford, with her bubbly personality, would have been cheerily chatting away -- and no doubt skewering Waltrip at every turn -- while Waltrip, the glowering colossus that heads Houston-based Service Corporation International, would have sat behind his massive desk, his blood pressure rising with each passing moment. Mitford "was looking forward to the meeting like a kid at Christmas," says Karen Leonard, Mitford's research assistant.

Alas, the meeting was not to be. Mitford had been lambasting undertakers for more than three decades. And even though Waltrip had agreed to a meeting in early 1995 with Mitford, and Mitford and Leonard had flown to Houston expressly for the chance to meet Waltrip, America's richest and most influential undertaker changed his mind at the last minute. He was not going to give Mitford a chance to skewer him in person.

But Mitford may be having the last laugh. With her posthumously published The American Way of Death Revisited, Mitford goes out of her way to make fun of Waltrip and SCI's efforts to become the Exxon of the funeral business. The book, which updates Mitford's 1963 book, The American Way of Death, offers new chapters on prepaid funerals and on the new multinational conglomerates that are capturing large segments of the worldwide funeral business. This conglomeration, writes Mitford, "bodes exceedingly well for the future of SCI's global village of the dead."

(SCI has been in the news here in Austin recently. In August, the Texas Funeral Service Commission, which has been locked in a regulatory battle with the company, was subjected to some unsavory tactics by SCI. According to an August 11 story in the local daily, an SCI apprentice embalmer allegedly threatened to kill members of the commission's staff, an SCI investigator called acquaintances of commission director Eliza May asking for negative information about her, and SCI requested huge amounts of information under open records laws about personnel, salaries, and travel expenses for commission employees.)

Some of Mitford's critics have argued that there was no need to update the landmark 1963 book. However, funerals continue to be one of the biggest expenses in the life (and death) of the average American. Mitford reports that the total average cost for an adult's funeral is $7,800. At that level, a funeral is often the third largest expense (after a home and car) that a person will have during their lifetime. The book goes through virtually every step of the funeral director's business and offers low or no-cost alternatives. For instance, the book points out that embalming, a procedure that most people believe is required, is in fact not required by law and can be avoided altogether. In a typically cheeky passage, Mitford quotes an undertaker as saying that embalming helps "dispel fears of live burial." To which Mitford cheerily adds, "How true; once the blood is removed chances of live burial are indeed remote."

Perhaps the most important chapter in the book is devoted to the growing business of "pre-need" funeral sales. Americans have invested some $20 billion in prepaid funeral and cemetery plans. But much of the interest on the money paid into the plans can be appropriated for other uses by the company that sells the policy. And the pre-need plans fall into a legal gray area. Some are insurance policies. Some are trusts. And the state agencies in charge of protecting the consumers' interests on the pre-paid plans are often ill-prepared to deal with complaints from consumers. But as Mitford points out, "Funeral directors have a strong motivation to sell ahead of time. Each funeral they have under wraps is one less that will go to a competitor."

As her final act of insolence, Mitford, who died in 1996, decided to have one final bit of fun at Waltrip's expense. After her death, Mitford's body was cremated. She had her friends send the bill to Waltrip.

They never got a reply. -- Robert Bryce



Naked Pictures of Famous People

I will marry Jon Stewart.

With that out of the way, I am here to tell you without a shred of bias that Stewart's first literary effort, Naked Pictures of Famous People, is a smart, unapologetically un-PC collection of mostly laugh-out-loud schtick little resembling the comic deadweight shat out by today's most lucrative comedians. Instead, Stewart aligns himself in the tradition of Woody Allen's Without Feathers, the brilliant 1972 compendium of stand-up, drama, and essays in which allusions to Kierkegaard are interspersed with gags about people dipped in gravy. Although Naked People offers a disappointing dearth of gravy yuks, Stewart has borrowed that faux-academic structure with tight little numbers ready for the "Shouts & Murmurs" page of the New Yorker (actually one already ran there), punched up with self-parody and laced with knowing references for the literate -- DaVinci, Lenny Bruce, Van Gogh, Gerald Ford (okay, not that literate). But running counterpoint to this goofball academe are potshots for the punk-ass MTV culture that comprises the other half of Stewart's under-30 demographic: forays into AOL chat rooms, Martha Stewart's tips on maintaining a tidy vagina (that's right: a tidy vagina), and "A Very Hanson Christmas, 1996-1999," in which the yearly yuletide newsletter of spry mom and mmmpop slowly deteriorates as Zach, Isaac, and Tay-Tay go the way of the Diff'rent Strokes cast.

In general, the famous people Stewart strips down are fairly predictable, and yet the book maintains its sting due to Stewart's sometimes wry, sometimes potty, humor (hairy ass jokes abound) and a refreshingly offensive edge rarely seen on his talk show. Stewart pokes fun at Judaism, outlining a hipper religion backed by a marketable mascot (Jewey) and Seders thankfully devoid of confusing symbolism ("Child: Why on this night do we eat hot fudge sundaes? Adult: To remind us that being Jewish is like having your birthday every day!! Plus they're delicious!"). But along with those come jokes about Princess Diana and a reformed Adolf Hitler appearing on Larry King Live, although the former, in which an airheaded English Rose maintains a ludicrously juvenile correspondence with Mother Theresa, is the more successful of the two. Which brings up the fact that, yes, there's some fat to be trimmed here. Bits like goofing on the Taco Bell Chihuahua are not only a bit of a groan, but they're also a tad too topical; it's difficult to imagine such comic ephemera doing much for the book's longevity (who's laughing at Spuds Mackenzie now, huh?). Nonetheless, for Stewart junkies it's a fix that will last at least until next season, when Stewart once again becomes the best -- well, at least the shortest -- talk show host on television, replacing Craig Kilborn on Comedy Central's irreverent Daily Show. In fact, this book is really a gift for just about anyone. It's terrific night table reading for lovers of intelligent satire. It's a step up from Martin Lawrence and Jim Breuer for the pre-teen bunch, especially the ones who don't like to read much (short chapters!). And for those of you who don't read at all? Well, I hear it's a scrumptious treat when dipped in gravy. Mmm ... gravy. -- Sarah Hepola-Stewart


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