Catastrophic Love in Lewis Nordan’s “The Sin Eater”

Lewis “Buddy” Nordan was a Delta bluesman. The author of Lightning Song, Boy with a Loaded GunThe Sharpshooter Blues, Wolf Whistle—a tragicomic novel about the Emmett Till murder—and Sugar Among the Freaks was one of two writers (the other Mark Richard) who gave me permission to write in a tragicomic aesthetic.

Humor, specifically the soulful kind applied to tragedy, seems out-of-fashion. Nordan, who died last April, was an anachronism to current trends. According to Barbara Baker:

all of Nordan’s writing, whether memoir, fiction, or journalistic observation, contains a heavy dose of the details of his personal life, transformed by a blues-oriented craft that speaks to Ralph Ellison’s contention that ‘the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal existence alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically’ (34).

I cannot get Ellison’s last sentence out of my head: “the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” Neither can Cornel West in this Big Think piece that inspired my post’s title:

Nordan’s “The Sin Eater,” which originally appeared in Welcome to The Arrow Catcher Fair and was later recollected in Sugar Among the Freaks, is Nordan at his most blues-drenched. Robert McIntyre, a ten-year-old, accidentally causes his younger brother’s death when he leaves lying around a Coke bottle filled with kerosene. His brother drinks the gas and

[weaves] drunkenly, like a comic actor on a television screen. Who was that actor, Robert thought? The child fell, and the bottle clattered against the floor. The kerosene darkened the wood, and Robert saw the future. He knew his brother would not live. As soon as he knew that, he screamed. (50)

The brother’s death, the most climatic event in the story, is revealed on the second page. The rest of the story is blues-magic, as Robert’s parents, before leaving with the ambulance that takes their son’s body to the hospital, send Robert to the house of a neighbor, a strange, old woman who lives alone in a “slave built house, with its spacious porch and gently sagging roofline, visible from the child’s bedroom if he had thought to look a hundred yards away (49)….kindly fat rich ancient shaky-hands Mrs. Tremble, with the white hair and wild peacocks and the gaseous aroma of pipe tobacco and face powder [with] breath [that] preceded her like a messenger of lightning and thunder” (51). The heart of the story navigates the strange and wonderfully bizarre interactions between Robert and Mrs. Tremble during this time of catastrophic grief. Mrs. Tremble is an outcast who tells Robert a story about an outcast from her own youth, the Sin Eater, a shunned, “jaundiced” homeless man who visited a wake in town unannounced and proceeded to eat a bowl of food over the deceased’s body:

‘I am the Sin Eater,’ he said. ‘I am the propitiation for your sins. I have taken unto my flesh all the sin and guilt of those here assembled, and especially those of the woman who lies dead before me. I am unclean with them. They burn inside me. Despise me, and beware of me. Touch nothing of me, neither of my body nor of my clothing. Azezial rages inside me. I am the Sin Eater, and I am doomed.’ (63)

Read “The Sin Eater” in Sugar Among The Freaks and the rest of Nordan’s work. You’re bound to fall in love:

The marvel was, in fact, that everything could be so much the same, that what his father said could be true: no blame, no guilt. Life was not a dream, he thought, or a story; the persons you meet are not fabulous or enchanted. Mrs. Tremble was no witch. The wonder, whether you liked it or not, was the choppy surfaces of lakes and the mounds of fire ants and the wild peacocks in the trees. The miracle was the hunger of wild dogs and the availability and vulnerability of goats. (66)

Sources

Barker, Barbara. “Transcendence and Hope in the Blues Life and Life Writing of Nordan.”
Lewis Nordan: Humor, Heartbreak, and HopeEd. Barbara Baker. Tuscaloosa: AL:
University of Alabama Press, 2012: 32-41.

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