cover image Wolf Whistle

Wolf Whistle

Lewis Nordan. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $16.95 (308pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-028-0

Though he writes Southern gothic novels that invite comparison to the works of T. R. Pearson, James Wilcox and Clyde Edgerton, Nordan creates a distinctively weird and fanciful world of his own, peopled by impoverished, eccentric and grotesque characters. The setting for his fourth novel (after Music in the Swamp ) is Arrow Catcher, Miss., a Delta town where magic can emerge from squalor and prejudice can be transcended by youthful idealism. Against this background, Nordan tells an alternative version of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the teenager visiting from Chicago who transgressed Deep South taboos by whistling at a white woman. Here Till is called Bobo, and like all the characters--white-trash rednecks and blacks alike--he is portrayed as essentially uneducated, speaking a highly ungrammatical vernacular, and condemned to a life circumscribed by rabid racism. In reproducing the speech and behavior of his humble characters, Nordan does not condescend; he faithfully renders the narrow, wretched lives of Delta inhabitants, particularly the oppressed black people, and the hopelessness of their lot. (Emmett/Bobo's murderers go free.) Propelled by Nordan's musical prose, much of this narrative soars above the commonplace into the realm of myth. Sometimes, however, Nordan is betrayed by his own rhetoric and by a compulsion to wax rhapsodic. In striving for an apocalyptic vision, he overreaches his ability to hold readers inside his bizarre alternate world. Nonetheless, this is an unforgettable story by a writer of great talent. (Oct.)