Marquez of the Mississippi

Lightning Song

by Lewis Nordan

Algonquin Books, 1997, 273 pp. $18.95


Reviewed by Mark Collins

My old girlfriend once gave the shortest, clearest literary critique I ever heard: "When I first start reading a Joyce Carol Oates book, I think to myself, 'This is one crazy antelope.' But by the end, I'm thinking, 'Girl, I know exactly what you're saying.'"

It's true. Some of the world's great authors are poster children for Prozac. Proust? Nuts. Dostoevsky? Really nuts. Fitzgerald? Nuts and alcoholic . . . and married to one, to boot.

It's ironic, then, that the authors who dabble in "magical realism" (a term literary theorists use when they don't know what to make of something) are often the most normal of the bunch. Gabriel Garcia Marquez might've been a little off balance, but not nearly as crazy as his novels. Salman Rushdie has remained surprisingly sane, considering that less-than-glowing review from the Ayatollah. (Like many reviewers, Khomeini issued a death decree without actually reading the book.) Even Ms. Oates' work is-well, I don't know what it is, but she seems normal.

And then we come Pitt English prof Lewis "Buddy" Nordan, who may or may not be crazy. Whose novels may or may not be realistic, though certainly magical. Whose plots and characters simply defy description.

Lightning Song, Nordan's third novel, retains all the recurring themes of his other work: Mississippi setting, all manner of people living with disabilities (both known and unknown), and family dysfunctionality aged to perfection. The story is centered around Leroy, a sensitive boy on the cusp of adolescence, and his one-armed father, Swami Don, his precocious sister Laurie, his bed-wetting sister Molly, the New People across the pasture who drive backwards in their Crown Victoria as a cure for their troubles, and, of course, the ever-present llamas. Oh, and did I mention the crucial role of Aldo Moro, the former prime minister of Italy whose untimely death sparks romance between Leroy's mother and ne'er-do-well Uncle Harris? And then there's the frisky, buxom, well-past-nutty baton twirler . . . .

Oh, what's the use of explaining the plot? The plot seems secondary. Hell, the narrative seems secondary. Nordan plays shamelessly with point-of-view, with time and place. At certain points, Leroy seems much older, while at other times much younger. (Nordan sometimes covers his tracks by suddenly altering the perspective: "Maybe it was only Leroy himself, later on, who would have a hard time believing the events of this night could have happened.") He also changes the sensibilities of the storyteller: What seems like Leroy's story will transmogrify into Laurie's story, then into Swami Don's tale. The whole book is the antithesis of everything that young writers are told not to do: Keep with a single narrative voice. Be consistent. Get your facts straight. In the strange world of Lightning Song, Aldo Moro and Dolby stereo are allowed to be contemporaries. Why? Because it doesn't matter. The thing that's urgent-the flailing swimmer who rises to the surface again and again in an epic battle with the undertow-is irrepressible, untamed, unnamed longing. Oh, these tragic characters think they've named their dream (familiar suspects like Love, Sex, Death, and Escape), but in the end hopes are dashed, transgressions acknowledged, forgiveness granted.

Actually that's half the story. Through all this heartache-perhaps, perversely, because of it-runs Nordan's utterly bizarre sense of humor. A description of a man trying to buy pickled pig's feet turns into a tour de force worthy of Eudora Welty. But be forewarned: Much of the humor isn't exactly suitable for family reading, and may well be an acquired taste-sort of like Vincent's Pizza.

Now that I've finished, I feel as if I've recommended a ride on the Thunderbolt to someone who may have cardiac problems. I mean, it was fun and scary and heart-wrenching, but maybe you should check with your doctor first.

Mark Collins' second book of essays, Born to be Mild, is due out this year from Liguori Publications.

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