Agee Agonistes: Essays on the Life, Legend, and Works of James Agee
edited by Mike Lofaro
(University of Tennessee Press, $48)
A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text
edited by Mike Lofaro
(University of Tennessee Press, $49.95)
It was a big year for University of Tennessee Professor Mike Lofaro, and maybe for the reputation of Knoxville native James Agee, too; Lofaro edited not one but two thick hardback books about Agee, both published by UT Press.
The first, Agee Agonistes: Essays on the Life, Legend, and Works of James Agee, is the more scholarly and probably esoteric of the two. It's made up of polished versions of 17 papers presented at an Agee conference at UT in 2005, including discussions of Agee and surrealism, Agee and the South, Agee and ritual violence, some previously unpublished correspondence with the woman who was probably his final lover—and a rare memoir of Agee written by the conference's guest of honor, his daughter Deedee, a New Yorker who began visiting her father's home town only recently.
Lofaro's second effort of the year, A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text, may actually change the way people read the author's best-known novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize and has been adapted for major stage and film productions multiple times over the 50 years since its original publication. The new edition includes almost all of the familiar novel, but reordered chronologically, with a different and much stranger prologue, which, Lofaro is convinced, is the one Agee himself intended. Most interesting to Agee-philes is the inclusion of several unpublished parts of the story, as discovered in Agee's original notes archived at the University of Texas, including a lush chapter set in Chilhowee Park during a carnival. In the 1957 novel, Mr. Agee is a strong, silent type, a melancholy, almost Lincolnesque figure; the new passages bring Agee's father out of the closet more as a Campbell County hillbilly who picked fights with carnival hucksters. One early reader has likened him to an East Tennessee archetype, the Whup-Ass Man.
Lofaro has been entirely transparent about his method; almost half the book is taken up with notes explaining exactly what he did where and why. But he keeps the narrative all together, with minimal interruption. The fact that the new version is interesting is undebatable. Whether it works better as a novel is for you to judge. -Jack Neely
Ace Sleuth, Private Detective
by Joe Purkey
(Publish America, $21.95)
Ace Sleuth is an unusual private eye. The first time he appears in Joe Purkey's novel, he's dressed in rags (in order to dig through the trash of someone he's tailing). He's changed his name—not to Sleuth, which he was born with, but to Ace, so he can get the first listing in the phone book. And he answers questions with questions:
"Do I do that?"
"You just did."
"There you go again."
Ace Sleuth, Private Detective is more of a courtroom drama than a crime thriller—the crime is insurance fraud, and there are few thrills beyond a minor car accident, an attempted carjacking, and a plane ride. Purkey does, however, take readers on a friendly tour through downtown Knoxville and the surrounding area, with digressions on the history of the Butcher towers and Cades Cove and a consideration of a long-standing local philosophical conundrum: Who do you root for when the Titans play the Colts? -Matthew Everett
Historic Photos of Knoxville
by William E. Hardy
(Turner Publishing, $39.95)
There are several coffee-table books of photographs of historic photos of Knoxville on the market. The latest is called, with a rare straightforward honesty, Historic Photos of Knoxville.
Many of the photos in this handsome and generally well-assembled collection are well known to the sort of people who look at published historic photos of Knoxville: Kuhlman's way-over-advertised drug stores, Spanish-American War soldiers parading down Gay Street, the Fort Sanders battlefield, FDR at Newfound Gap, the rubble of the great 1897 fire. And there are the derbied Hope brothers jewelers in front of their store, with the pedestal of the famous Hope Clock in the foreground, as they are in the new historical-society calendar; the Riviera Ten Commandments picture that now hangs in the lobby of Regal's new multiplex. And a few are old pictures of buildings still there and little changed: the present, in black and white.
But some of them aren't well known, and can surprise. Especially striking, in that regard, is one dated December 1910, an artful shot of Dickensian children of maybe 11 or 12, in tattered clothes, working at the Brookside Cotton Mill in North Knoxville, perhaps changing shifts. The most affecting shots in the book may be those of children, like that of a boy of about 13 (unaccountably called "unidentified man" in the caption) smoking a cigarette and selling flowers on Market Square, ca. 1941.
It's an interesting and comprehensive collection that reveals some of the diversity of the activities of this old town. The text has a few errors, as almost all books of this nature do. But one thing you notice is that Knoxville itself looks kind of shabby and lonesome.
Some eloquent verbal descriptions of the diversity of urban life in the 1890s can make Knoxville sound like Manhattan. And we know from census data that Knoxville was a densely populated, booming place. But in many old photos, here and elsewhere, it looks like a desperate frontier town, barely hanging on.
Old photos, all black and white, or, more specifically, gray, can make things seem more drab than they were. In this book, in particular, the photos themselves seem to have reproduced on the dark side of the register; in nearly every one, the sky looks overcast, like one of those days you wish it would just go ahead and rain.
Some are a little blurry, and some were taken with slow shutter speeds that can make anything moving seem to vanish. And few of our historic photographers seemed to have an eye for context, or any artistic intent.
Part of it's the technology—but part of it's just the way the people lived. Well-tended grass, for example, is mainly a 20th-century conceit. A century ago, houses were often set apart by weedy patches of dirt. Those awnings really were tattered, that street really was mostly dirt and gravel, that building really was sooty, and, by the late 19th century, the streets really were notable for horse excrement, random paper litter, and a clutter of telephone poles and wires.
The Central Street Wharf was approximately where the Star of Knoxville is moored now. It sounds romantic in some accounts of a century or more ago, but it looks dreary, run-down, and muddy here, like clutter at the edge of an East Kentucky coal town.
We know from a few open-minded essayists that it could be an exciting place—but look at these photos and you may come away with the impression that in spite of several regrettable architectural losses, Knoxville may look better in 2007 than it ever did. -J.N.
The Holiday Season
by Michael Knight
(Grove Press, $18)
Knoxville's lucky to have Michael Knight, a writer who claims to be more comfortable with the short story than the novel, even though his first novel, Divining Rod, had its fair share of critical acclaim. For the past few academic years he's headed UT's creative writing program. Three of his students have worked for Metro Pulse. One was editor of the paper for nearly two years.
The Holiday Season, which consists of two thematically similar novellas, may be his best work to date. And if you've read his last collection of short stories, Goodnight, Nobody, then you already know how powerful Knight's writing can be, because he's able to blend the prosaic with the poetic without coming across as a jerk-off. At times, the subtlety of his language belies a keen sense of timing and attention to the smallest details.
Knight has one of the rarest gifts: the ability to write a scene, to fill it with blindingly quirky and, at times, poignant descriptions. The pacing never spirals out of control, and there's always room for the text to breathe. Knight never adds too much, which is almost impossible to teach, and even harder to do well in print.
This is character-driven fiction, and Knight addresses the fundamental brutality of family life and the holiday season indirectly, focusing on the peculiarities that make his characters tick.
But on the cover there's a picture of a quaint snowy day, and a lost, shadowy soul lurks in the foreground, like a print that would sell really well at the mall. It seems a little too humdrum for Knight's novellas, somehow conjuring images of the forgettable schlock that cinéma sourd-muet auteur Ray Dennis Steckler would've directed in the '60s. Luckily, Knight's work is first-rate fiction, and The Holiday Season is certainly the author's most complex work to date.
Knight finds something universal in his work, the small, intricate connections that bind us together, whether we like it or not. Everything is connected, but Knight avoids any sappy, predictable conclusion. Here we see the mundane and the oh-so-depressing facts of life blend together so eloquently that, as if by magic, the lives of his characters begin to reach for a small taste of the divine, or something just as grandiloquent. -Kevin Crowe
The Movable Nest: A Mother/Daughter Companion
edited by Kathryn Stripling Byer and Marilyn Kallet
(Helicon Nine Editions, $12.95)
The Movable Nest is a passionate collection of stories and poems by 53 nationally celebrated female literary figures—like the editors themselves, Kathryn Stripling Byer and Marilyn Kallet, both prize-winning poets. These stirring revelations by both mothers and daughters explore suffocating adoration, love/hate relationships, and the pain of letting go, as expressed in "High School Senior" by Sharon Olds: "There are creatures whose children float away/ at birth, and those who throat-feed their young/ for weeks and never see them again. My daughter/ is free and she is in me–no, my love/ of her is in me, moving in my heart/ changing chambers, like something poured/ from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed." And poet Brenda Hillman expresses a mother's loving desperation to keep her daughter close in the encapsulated poem "Band Practice": "—I dropped her off, she was balancing the guitar case/on her head, there was one of those abnormal green/ladybugs on the front seat; I said:/call me anyway, even if you're happy." -Jeanne McDonald
Heart in the Right Place
by Carolyn Jourdan
(Algonquin Books, $23.95)
A lot of books lately, both fiction and non-fiction, are accounts of leaving the urban rat race for the slower pace and tolerance for eccentricity of a rural lifestyle, but East Knox Countian Carolyn Jourdan's book is a hard variation on that theme. Heart In the Right Place is a story of one of the most radical lifestyle shifts possible without crossing seas.
Once a Mercedes-driving, fashion-conscious Capitol Hill attorney, Carolyn Jourdan left high society not by mid-life choice, but by family obligation; her mother had suffered a heart attack, and Jourdan felt obliged to help her father, a country doctor, run his office. Temporarily, she thought—but surprised, as she says, "like a possum in the headlights," the emergency visit becomes something more than that. The familiar but sometimes bizarre world she thought she'd left becomes, for better and worse, her second career, and her new life.
The book, written in a straightforward style taught to young storytellers on certain front porches, has an easy appeal, and is funnier than most sitcoms—at the same time, though, it offers an unflinching look at a dilemma most of us are going to have to deal with someday, perhaps more than once.
It's already gotten major national attention; in a starred review, Publisher's Weekly called it "a stirring, beautiful memoir that is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking." Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes, with which it shares a certain sensibility, calls it "heartwarming, funny, and utterly appealing." Even Dolly Parton, whose name is rarely seen underneath dust-jacket blurbs, offers her praise. -J.N.
A Knoxville Christmas, 2007
edited by Cyn Mobley
(Greyhound Books, $16)
The new Knoxville Writers' Guild holiday anthology is familiar—most of the 45 contributors have had work published in other Guild anthologies or in local magazines (including, yes, Metro Pulse), and their essays, fiction, and poetry on Christmas are suitably nostalgic. A Knoxville Christmas, edited by Cyn Mobley, also includes work from new writers, a handful of whom have never been published before. That, combined with a four-month turnaround from conception to printing, gives the book a seat-of-the-pants feel, but the warmth and candor of holiday memories more than make up for its shortcomings. -M.E.