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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Rabbit Cake & Snail-Slow Freight Trains

From Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp

My mother made me a birthday cake in the shape of a rabbit–she had a cake pan molded in that shape–and she decorated it with chocolate icing and stuck on carrot slices for the eyes. It was a difficult cake to make stand up straight, but with various props it would balance on its hind legs on the plate, so that when I came into the room it looked almost real standing there, its little front feet tucked up to its chest.

At the sight of the rabbit I started to cry. My mother was startled by my tears. She had been standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. The table was set with a white tablecloth and linen napkins, three settings for my birthday dinner.

I could not stop crying, looking at that rabbit cake. I knew that my mother loved me, I knew something of her grief–something in the desperate innocence of the rabbit, its little carrot eyes. I thought of the hopelessness of all love, and that is why I was crying, I think.

My mother came to me and held me to her and I felt her warmth and smelled her woman-smell. I wanted to dance with her at the Legion Hut. I wanted to give her a gift of earthworms (69).

………………………

When I was a child of eleven, there as a snail-slow freight train of a dozen cars or less that dragged its back legs through town each morning like a sorry dog and even stopped momentarily for God knows what reason at the Arrow Catcher depot and rested itself long to catch its breath and then, as if hopelessly, gathered its strength once again and set out on its asthmatic straining greasy little diesel motion towards the Mississippi River, some forty miles west of where I lived. (71)

Monday Text: Ron Rash’s “Night Hawks”

Ron Rash is a masterful short story writer–one of my favorites. Many people think of his novels first, but his short story collections are top notch and my favorite books of his. Burning Bright and, his most recent release, Nothing Gold Can Stay, are two of the best collections published in the 21st C.

I also take a selfish pride in my love for Rash’s work because I knew of him before he became nationally known. He read at East Carolina University in the late 90s, where I did my undergrad, and it was the first reading I’d ever attended. At that time he had a poetry collection–Eureka Mill–and a short story collection that’s now out-of-print, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth, both published by small presses in South Carolina (Hub City, which has grown in recent years and now has a national reputation, and Bench Press, which I’m pretty sure is now defunct–copies of Rash’s first story collection are going for $600+ on Amazon!).

Anyway, I remember the value Rash placed on emotion. You’d be surprised how much contemporary fiction avoids emotion, as if our post-post-post-whatever-modern world is too cool and cynical to acknowledge that yes, our daily lives are still defined by basic emotional truths. Of course, this isn’t to say Rash’s work is sentimental. His work is usually quiet and introspective yet still surprising, dark, and Gothic. Flannery O’Connor famously said, and I paraphrase here, that the greatest writerly sins are sentimentality and pornography. Rash is neither sentimental nor “pornographic”/pulpish, and O’Connor’s point is that sentimentality exists on both ends of the spectrum–mushiness on one end, nihilistic pulp on the other. Rash is a writer who clearly writes within the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor, as well as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, among many others.

“Night Hawks,” which originally appeared in Grist and appears in Nothing Gold Can Stayis such a story. Without spoiling, I’ll say the story features a maimed protagonist, Ginny, who has a rather large scar on her face from an accident that occurs within the plot. She’s a teacher and has to leave her job at the local high school, one she was having trouble with before the accident occurred. She’s always been isolated and misunderstood, an introvert and hermit, and the scar only makes matters worse. Did I not tell you Rash does the Southern Gothic thing?

The story’s title comes from her job as a graveyard shift DJ on a local AM radio show. It’s the perfect job for her because she can connect with people from afar, without the shame of her disfigurement. Like many radio DJs, she creates a moniker, and it’s perfect: the Night Hawk. She’s an immediate success and connects with people–lonely people who need a voice to fall asleep to at night, for instance–yet, throughout the story, she’s still alone herself and severely depressed; her depression is a debilitating, chronic variety, fraught with anxiety and hints of paranoia. This isn’t a simplistic story where the damaged protagonist “finds herself” through her new job, more than one where the new job is the only thing keeping her alive. 

I’m posting the story’s ending, which I don’t think will ruin the story for you. It’s quite beautiful. And, if you haven’t purchased Nothing Gold Can Stay, I highly recommend it. Also, check out Silas House’s wonderful interview with Rash on House’s show, Hillbilly Solid. Not only is the interview great, but so is the music, and much of it fits the mood of Rash’s work. Here’s the story’s ending:

At the radio station she would unlock the door, and soon enough Buddy Harper would end his broadcast and leave. She would say, This is the Night Hawk, and play “After Midnight.” Ginny would speak to people in bedrooms, to clerks drenched in the fluorescent light of convenience stores, to millworkers driving back roads home after graveyard shifts. She would speak to the drunk and sober, the godly and the godless. All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone. (225)

Fire

I just burned a story draft I’d been working on since the beginning of summer break that was to be the first story in my new book manuscript. The story lacked heart and the characters came from my head, not my gut. It’s often assumed that revision is every story’s birthright, but burning is as much a birthright as revision, and who says burning can’t be part of the revision process? Sometimes, it helps to reset with a blank page, but resetting in this instance can’t occur without the ritual of draft-burning. I mention this as an excuse to post one of my favorite Harry Crews bits:

“Deep Reading” isn’t Dead–Neither is Laziness

Over at Big Think, Nicholas Carr blogged about the supposed “death of deep reading.” As expected, Carr connected the growing prevalence and continual need for “simpler forms of writing, more broken up forms of writing” to–drum roll–our increased dependence on technology.

I’m troubled by the assumption that a “simple” style precludes deep reading. Do people really believe this? Do people read Hemingway’s succinct prose published almost a century ago–closer to the age of Victorianism than the age of the Internet–and think, now this is something I don’t have to read ‘deeply,’ because the sentences are shorter! Please.

There is no inherent connection between spareness and reading depth, and I’m weary of the false equivalency between the two. Also, writers were using “broken up forms of writing” (writing that uses headers, collage, modular narrative broken into spare fragments, etc.) centuries before the computer age. The false equivalency that conflates spareness and fragmentation with “shorter attention spans” or “contemporary society’s dependence on technology”–yawn–needs to stop, because it’s a red herring.

David Shields loves to push this idea, but it’s utter nonsense, historically inaccurate, and, most damning, a rationalization for laziness. There’s a big difference between genuine simplicity–say, Hemingway’s Iceberg-eque version that challenges readers–and myopic simplicity that assumes readers have shortened attention spans because they spend too much time on their iPhones.