cover image The Sharpshooter Blues

The Sharpshooter Blues

Lewis Nordan. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $17.95 (308pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-083-9

The South is a country like no other, as we have learned from Faulkner and Welty and O'Connor, and Nordan (Wolf Whistle) is one of the best contemporary writers to portray its people. He does so with tenderness and compassion, in prose that rises and falls like plangent music. Here, as usual, the characters are colorful, eccentric and sometimes bizarre, but they are at home in their setting--again the fictional Mississippi delta town of Arrow Catcher--and Nordan makes them real. Again he uses humor to mask his characters' ``inexpressible grief and... foreknowledge of lifelong pain.'' Among those who endure this pain are Mr. Raney, a fisherman who shares his shack with his hydrocephalic, 20-year-old son, Hydro; and 10-year-old Louis McNaughton, who watches Hydro shoot the ``two lovely children'' (read vicious killers) who try to rob Mr. William Tell's grocery store. Mr. Raney, a widower, treats his handicapped son with gentle love; he calls him ``Peaches'' and sings blues as lullabies. Louis's parents, on the other hand, have damaged their children with selfish and irresponsible behavior. In this society, most people own firearms, and a gunslinger, such as ``tiny as a midget'' Morgan, the titular sharpshooter, enjoys respect; indeed, lovable Mr. Raney regularly aims his pistol at the refrigerator (``there was nothing as satisfying as shooting a gun inside a house''). Nordan makes us understand that these are good people who put great store in loyalty, courtesy and friendship, though violence is often an accidental byplay. While he evokes his special world with skill, however, he sometimes asks too much of his readers' credulity. The semimystical state in which characters undergo magical metamorphoses or see visions, and the inappropriate conversation in the face of death (which Nordan intends as gallant but which comes across as grotesque), sometimes veer toward caricature. Yet Nordan's take on the South--both quaint and fiercely honest--is a healing view, embracing the power of love to earn redemption. Author tour. (Sept.)