I got an email from my friend Jack Butler, author of Living in Little Rock with Miss Littlerock and other books. Jack was quite the successful writer in the ’80s and ’90s. Little Rock was published by Knopf in 1993. It was such a big deal that Bill Clinton threw a reception for Jack in the White House to celebrate the publication. And it was nominated for a Pulitzer. But now Jack is not so well known—the unknowable vicissitudes of the book business. As Jack put it, “I used to publish pretty bigtime, but I’ve been out of the limelight for so long, I doubt I could even get an agent.”
Jack read the manuscript of my latest novel, Locked In, and wrote:
“I think this novel is fine, maybe your best yet. The choice of narrator is perfect, in many ways. He’s locked in, locked in to his own life, his own growth, his own choices, his own mistakes. He can’t do a damn thing about them but face the truth.”
The narrator is Willie Ray Rivers, a newspaper publisher who is totally paralyzed and can’t speak.
“In some ways, his condition mimics the condition of the South, especially Mississippi, as I see it. Mississippi, the worst parts of it anyway, has spent decades denying its past. But that past happened. And now Mississippi is paying the price. It can no more escape the results of its sins and lies than Willie Ray Rivers can escape his.”
I’m not perfectly clear if Jack was referring to the book or to the people of Mississippi in the following paragraph. Probably both, because Mississippians of quiet courage inspired much of the book.
“There’s something I tremendously admire about it, too. The quiet courage of the people who stayed, who stayed and stood up for what counted. The people like Randy Muggles, and all the blacks in Palmer’s Crossing. They have, like Dilsey, endured, and finally the South is changing around them. I do hope they get the benefit of that change. But now the whole country is threatened by the evil the South nurtured for so long, and I don’t know if any of us will make it.
“I love Willie Ray Rivers’s voice. You pull the same brilliant trick you have pulled in all of your books. Instead of railing about the evil, you speak from the voice of a normal, but sane and basically decent observer. Willie Ray is a man who can learn, and he learns from Dream . . .”
Dream Wilson, Willie Ray’s best friend in the novel
“. . . from his first sight of the picture of The Blessed Ludivico, to his notions of the divine—I was especially struck by his dismissal of the whole creaking apparatus of the theology his crazy momma taught him, to the point that he even doubts the existence of God, but even as he doubts, he says he wants even more to have the experience of the divine, which he sees, as Dream does, as a kind of spiritual ecstasy.”
Maybe I should insert some explanation before quoting Jack’s message further. As a young man, Willie Ray was arrested for possession of marijuana. In jail he met Dream, who had been framed for grand theft auto. Dream is a kind of hippie spiritual seeker who became Willie Ray’s best friend.
“This narrator can give us the portrait of the idiocies of that era in simple tossed-aside details, like the shopkeeper who lost his shit and canceled his ad because there was a microscopic nude in the Walter Anderson reproduction in the Tattler. He has the wit to toss aside little observations like “transparency was not a high priority with the city government.”
“(Ella, who is the true hero of the novel, at least for me, has her wit, too, as when she describes Bubba as being ‘not so bad for a racist bully with oatmeal for brains.’)
Ella is Willie Ray’s wife, and Bubba is a crooked politician with connections to the Ku Klux Klan.
“Or the acerbic comment that if you want a good cure for violent headaches, total paralysis and being mute seems to have worked for Willie Ray. Or the heartbreaking observation, brought to mind by Bauby’s death, that who knew that simple bodily functions like pissing could kill you?
Bauby is Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist, author and editor of the French fashion magazine Elle. Like Willie Ray, Bauby had Locked In syndrome. He wrote about it by blinking his eyes while his wife took dictation for his book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
“Almost cried at the truth, available only to the totally paralyzed, who were forced to communicate by blinking, of how seldom married couples looked into each other’s eyes.
“Anyway, a hell of a good novel with a hell of a good narrator. Congratulations on a top-rate piece of work!”
I am so grateful to Jack for his encouragement and insightful commentary. I do not yet have a publication date for Locked In, but rest assured I will shout it out to the world as best I can as soon as we do.