Article Comment 

Rheta Johnson: Faulkner, chainsaws and magnolias

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

 

The apex of my 40-year journalism career was a telephone interview, strange to say. I combed my curls and dressed up in my best corduroy skirt and blue sweater for that phone chat, wanting to look pretty because of the person on the other end of the line. 

 

At the appointed hour, Willie Nelson, no less, said, "This is Willie," and I thought but did not say, "Take me now, Lord." Willie couldn't have been nicer and was as unhurried and mellow as I get on the summer porch along around tea time. 

 

I was happy with my Willie exchange until I read a new book by Oxford, Mississippi, writer and entertainer Jim Dees called "The Statue & the Fury, A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails." I bought an advance copy at the recent and humongous Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson.  

 

I soon would learn that Jim Dees also interviewed Willie, but in person, on Willie's bus. I won't spoil Dees' story by telling you why his experience ranked, on a scale of 1 to 10, much higher than my own. You'll just have to buy the book, soon available through Nautilus Publishing. 

 

And you'll be glad you swapped, say, one fancy lunch for a book you'll keep forever. It is effortlessly funny, which you'd expect from the hilarious host of Thacker Mountain Radio Show, which Dees calls the "Grand Ole Opry of Literature." And it is more. 

 

This book may be the best thing I've read out of Mississippi in a long while, and, yes, that includes the mega-seller "Dispatches from Pluto" by the British writer Richard Grant who dropped into the Delta for a season. 

 

Dees grew up in the Delta and has lived in Mississippi all of his life, and I would bet the farm isn't leaving. He knows where the bodies are buried and takes great glee in exhuming them. 

 

Throw in Dees' deadpan humor and you have a rollicking, informed and erudite read about everything from James Brown to the Hale-Bopp comet. 

 

At age 40, when most of us are hiding from editors and burning out, Dees became a cub reporter for the local Oxford newspaper. If ever anyone was born to be a reporter, to take that glass bottom boat ride through a sewer, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, it was Dees. 

 

The job put him in the catbird seat for 1997, the year a controversy that could only happen in Oxford erupted. A magnolia was cut to make room for a statue of native son William Faulkner. If that sounds benign, a dull night at the council, you've never eaten an asparagus finger sandwich in Oxford. 

 

Like most of Oxford's intelligentsia, Dees knows his Faulkner, but he, mercifully, doesn't hit you over the head with a copy of "Intruder in the Dust."  

 

Dees quotes "Sartoris" before telling of his ride with sculptor Bill Beckwith to fetch Faulkner from the foundry. "His head was lifted a little in that gesture of haughty pride which repeated itself generation after generation with a fateful fidelity...." 

 

The controversial statue rode uncovered in the back of artist's truck, all the way home to the Oxford square.  

 

"Funny how no one, not a single vehicle, honked the horn to ask about the statue," Dees writes.  

 

"We got a few waves of the hand.... I kept looking back at the statue nervously, trying not to make Bill nervous..." 

 

And so the bronze man that had divided a town made it to Oxford square, where it remains, a silent observer of any passing silliness. 

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected] 

 

 

 

printer friendly version | back to top

 

 

 

 

 

Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email