Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Growing Up Absurd

Lewis Nordan on one writer's beginnings.

By Leonard Gill

JANUARY 31, 2000: 

Boy With Loaded Gun by Lewis Nordan (Algonquin), 290 pp., $23.95

If you know the novels of Lewis Nordan -- seven so far -- you know he knows what he's doing when it comes to storytelling. You might also be led to believe Nordan, professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, knows what separates fact and fiction. In this you would however be mistaken, and Nordan himself admits to as much in the pages that preface his latest, an autobiography called "Boy With Loaded Gun."

In that opening author's note, Nordan puts the problem to his second wife, Annie (the name's been changed to protect the innocent), because it's a problem he's set for himself: Can a book that purports to be a memoir be both fact and to some degree fiction, a report of things as they happened on one hand, and on the other, some side-stepping of the truth here, some exaggeration there, and some invention who knows why or where? As clue to what Nordan has in mind, we get Annie's own projected categories for this book (based solely on its cryptic chapter titles), which come down to one or more of the following possibilities (none of them, you'll notice, Memoir): Grief Therapy, Pop Psychology, Murder Mystery, Comic Book, Religious Tract (Zen division), History, Poetry, Science Fiction, Travel, Sociology, and, perhaps nearest the mark, "How To" Guide for Jackasses.

However you look at it, "Boy With Loaded Gun" is either too much or too little from a writer with a history that's problematic at best, impossible at worst, a man, in short, at odds with himself, his upbringing, his very talent and, in these pages, at pains to come clean with his comic, tragic, dirty laundry.

Ground zero of weirdness, based on what greets us in these pages, according to Nordan's telling: Itta Bena, Mississippi. Root cause of misery, based on Nordan's unheavy-handed self-analysis: a father's sudden death when the boy was only 18 months. Object of affection: mother. Object of mystery and affection: an alcoholic stepfather. Life's mission: escape.

This Nordan proposes doing by linking up early on with an orphan from the planet Krypton (Superman); mail-ordering from locales as exotic as Chicago, Illinois; traveling single, with his mother's blessing, to the equally exotic locale of Memphis, Tennessee; traveling single, without his parents' knowledge, for a genuinely exotic, troubling, comical few days in New York; attempting to kill his stepfather using a mail-order pistol (it mysteriously fails to fire); and to cap it all, being voted Silliest Sophomore in high school.

Nordan (does it need adding?) obsesses over sex as the next best thing to escape, and turns to alcohol in due time as the next best thing to sex. In-between time, he elopes with his college sweetheart, sets up house in Florida, teaches, sets up house in Alabama, teaches, fathers three children (loses two; one, later in life, to suicide), carries on a grimy affair with a bona fide hippie, drinks, rages, abuses, smokes pot, grows pot, grows a beard, and successfully runs his first wife off after she's supported his first, fledgling attempts at writing during a tenure in Arkansas. These are tips of the iceberg, however. For bottom of the barrel, destination: Pittsburgh.

Here Nordan, in AA and with scarcely a dime, hooks up with a couple whose bizarre sexual tastes I won't begin to describe (see "The Amazing Technicolor Effing Machine" for details), hooks up with Annie, cheats on Annie, gets thrown not out but down into Annie's basement, where, when "Boy With Loaded Gun" comes to some kind of conclusion, Nordan gets wise and down to some serious writing. Recognition is around the bend, we're to understand; it is not described. What we are to understand, in the book's closing chapter, is harder to fathom: a perfectly sober discussion between husband and wife on the respective virtues of AK-47s versus Derringers. For what purpose, does even Nordan know? By this point, we don't want to know.

Peace be to the author of "Wolf Whistle" and "Lightning Song." Having unloaded, with mea culpas all around, in the pages of "Boy With Loaded Gun," I still don't buy he's found it.

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