Barefoot through America II

Delta Airlines, which flies me from Chicago’s O Hare airport to Atalanta, Georgia then down to Jackson, Mississippi, is staffed by the cheeriest flight attendants in the United States.
‘We’re going home, hon,’ one tells me when I ask why they’re in such good humour. This is my first inkling that the South exerts a definite and peculiar pull. After checking in at Jackson and taking a long cab ride out on the I-55, I reach the book-Mecca of the Lemuria bookstore. Lemuria is stacked high with volumes I’d like to read (I finally settle for Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars”, a kind of post-apocalyptic vision with heart). After signing a pile of my own books I ask how easy it will be to get a taxi back to my hotel. ‘Come for dinner first,’ a trio of Lemurians answer. ‘Then we can drive you home after. Cocktails?’
As we get cocktails and beer and fried chicken, Kelly recalls a school exchange to Minnesota . ‘They asked if we wore shoes in Mississippi,’  she exclaims. ‘Shoes! Can you imagine?’. Her youthful colleague meanwhile recounts how he paid his way through college by cleaning up crystal meth factories after police raids. Called out at 3am to drive a truck into the backwoods, his job was to chemically neutralise the unstable substances – which had a tendency to explode. All this while wearing a $10,000 isolation suit to counter the HIV-infected human excrement and blood. He breaks off when the food arrives. Another mint julep? Why not… The next morning I’m up early for the car-ride to Oxford. Ron Shapiro, who picks me up, used to run Oxford’s only art-house cinema and has also seen a lot of authors. A guitar sounds from the stereo then a familiar but unexpected voice. ‘Is that Mississippi John Hurt?’ I ask and before Ron nods I know we’re going to get along fine. That’s just as well since the ride to Oxford takes three hours, or three and three-quarters when we stop off at Eudora Welty’s house. In her garden is a plaque inscribed with a quote from a letter to her agent, “Every evening when the sun is going down and it is cool enough to water the garden, and all is quiet except for the locusts in great waves of sound, and I stand still in one place for a long time putting water on the plants, I feel something new…as if my will went out of me, as if I had a stubbornness and it was melting….” Amongst the artefacts in the house are some battered volumes of Dicken saved from fire by Eudora’s mother who threw them from the top-floor window then threw herself after them. Ron and I discuss different kinds of blues traditions, some from the delta region, some from Chicago where many black share-croppers made their way and where I used to live. The hours and miles pass. Soon enough we pull up outside the house of Lisa and Richard Howorth in Oxford. Richard owns and runs the three (three!) independent bookstores in Oxford’s main square and used to be the town’s mayor. Lisa is a writer and looks twenty years younger than she should. She also knows everyone, and seems prepared to take on anyone too. ‘I’ll throw you out of here,’ warns Randy, owner of the Ajax Diner where we have lunch as she and he spar. But Lisa is undeterred. The jibing continues until Randy shakes his head and ambles off. Later we discover he’s comp.ed our bill. ‘Sign a book for him,’ Lisa urges. ‘Randy’s a big reader.’ I sign that one and two hundred and fifty more at Square Books then visit William Faulkner’s house where a friend of Ron’s shows us around. ‘That’s the telephone where he took the call from the Nobel Prize committee,’ he tells me. Local numbers are scrawled on the wall behind it. ‘Of course he’d heard a week beforehand. The local journalists got hold of it. Word gets around.’ That night I’m part of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show along with the Memphis Dawls, a protean alt folk ensemble  which tonight features cello, drums, trumpet, violin, mandolin, guitar and three women singing. I think they’re wonderful. My act is a talk about English historical cuisine and a reading but the audience is indulgent or perhaps just polite. They nod and laugh and clap.
At 6.30 am the next morning Ron and I are on the road to Memphis for a radio interview with Stephen Usery of WYPL then on to Sun Records. Here began the careers of Johny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. Jailhouse Rock and Blue Suede Shoes were recorded here. The one-storey building looks like nothing much but it seems to hum with the resonance of what was created within its walls. There’s a tour of the studio in half an hour but my plane leaves in 45 minutes. I grab t-shirts and run. Three hours later I land in Washington DC.
The last time I was here was my twenty-ninth birthday when I visited the Air and Space Museum then flew to Frankfurt for two days’ of jet-lagged interviews at the Book Fair. This time I have quick dinner with my old pal Simon Blake, lately transplanted to these shores, and a wander around the museums with new pal Paul Maliszewski. In the Freer Gallery we spend a surprising amount of time examining the stone ‘bi’ (or discs) produced by the Liangzhu culture about five thousand years ago for a purpose which today is completely unknown. More obviously appealing are a set of temple guardians busily squishing demons underfoot (here is Komoku-ten, guardian of the West). I am here to address the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Association which happens (enthusiastically) in the vast basement of the Hyatt out by Ronald Reagan Airport (it was Dulles last time I was here…) then on to Politics and Prose for a signing then it’s the train up the coast to New York City. Installed in TriBeCa, I have dinner with Sherri Rifkin, author of the acute and funny novel “Lovehampton” and one-time US editor of “The Pope’s Rhinoceros”. Over drinks in Odeon we recall a past meal at the same venue which became so chaotic that neither of us can now remember the appalling event which brought it to a close. It happened though, whatever it was. We’re clear on that much.
The next day is my birthday. The weather is perfect for a stroll down to the tip of Manhattan and a view of the distant Statue of Liberty. Then a metro ride up to Harlem for lunch with old friends Liza Schoenfein, who blogs the encounter better than I could, and Mark Jannot, her magazine journalist husband. The evening gig is a reading at Bookcourt then out to a birthday dinner at La Vara courtesy of Grove Atlantic. The last radio interview follows the next morning, on the Leonard Lopate show where, after describing how Wild Boar à la Troyenne was served in ancient Rome (sausages instead of guts, comfets for part-digested acorns), I bump into Kenny Rogers about to do the next interview. ‘Don’t blow it,’ I tell him.
Outside it has begun to rain. The cab to JFK is slow, and gets slower. Luckily the flight to Buffalo is delayed. At the other end I have forty-five minutes from the plane landing to my reading. I make it to Hallwells and the auspices of the Talking Leaves / Exhibit X fiction series with ten minutes to spare. It’s standing room only in the basement of the converted church where I’m introduced by the writers Christina Milletti and Dimitri Anastasopoulos. Sometimes you can feel the audience engage and this is one of those nights; the questions that follow range from seventeenth century cooking implements to the necessity of risk in literature. It’s a good end to a long tour. The next day I will take a walk down Buffalo’s Main Street and out to the waterfront. Both are slowly coming back to life after years in a kind of archival deep-freeze. I think I know how they feel.

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