Jim Long died last weekend, at age 81. Jim has spent most of his career in shoe retail downtown, at Miller's and Butler's, and later worked for the Knox County penal farm. But as a character in Cormac McCarthy's fourth novel, Suttree, he has a place in American literature that may have no precedent.
A couple of weeks ago, McCarthy made an unexpected trip to his hometown. He flew in from London, where he's working on a new movie called The Counselor. At 79, the novelist is embarking on a new career as a marquee screenwriter. He came here for one reason, to pay a visit to his childhood friend Jim Long, who'd been ailing.
We were privileged to spend some time with Jim earlier this month. He was in a hospital bed in his comfortable home on an agreeable tree-lined street in North Knoxville, with his wife, Elaine, tending to him. He once had a reputation as a pugilist and as a pool player. At the Eagles Club downtown, he's known as "Irish Jimmy." He was a member since 1962, and their pool room is named for him, with a plaque. He was an expert in some complicated varieties of the game.
When we visited, Jim was wearing a Notre Dame jersey. The Longs were a Catholic family. His father, who ran a grocery at the corner of 17th and Dale, died in 1938 when Jim was just 7. They lived nearby on Grand Avenue. Today, Grand's the shady side of Fort Sanders, but Jim considered it the fringe of McAnally Flats. As a neighborhood, "it was kinda tough," he told us. "When boys are drinking beer, you know, they'll brag. When one said he was from McAnally, that was sort of like bragging." A lot of McAnally Flats was demolished for I-40 and related development, but the oldest part is still there, known by its 19th-century name, Mechanicsville.
After his father died, Jim got work as a paperboy. His downtown route connected Market Square and the riverfront and the old Central Street Bowery. He got to know the city better than most kids. He knew the bankers and the bootleggers. ("Some bootleggers wouldn't sell to real young boys," he said.)
He attended St. Mary's Catholic school, then located on downtown's northern hilltop, near Immaculate Conception Church.
Not every Catholic-school alumnus is fond of nuns, but Jim spoke of them with affection. He remembered a Sister Jude and a Sister Canisius, who took a special interest in his welfare.
It was in 1940, the year he watched President Roosevelt's parade down Gay Street, that he met a new kid named McCarthy. "We called him Charlie back then," he said. Cormac McCarthy was born in Rhode Island, but in the mid-1930s, his dad took a job as a big-shot lawyer at TVA.
"I was one of the boys in school that didn't have a hell of a lot, and Charlie did have," Jim said. "That sorta showed up between us in school.
"In school, Charlie was a quiet person. He just did his work. He didn't associate a hell of a lot with other boys. But somehow he and I got hooked together, and made friends," he said. "The other boys, the ones that wanted to be bullies, why, I fought most of them. I took up for the guys that were supposed to be scared of the bullies in school, you know. And I think Charlie sort of took a liking to me, for that."
The two teamed up as altar boys at Immaculate Conception, but they also roamed, from the Gold Sun 24-hour cafe on Market Square to the Corner Grill on North Central to Comer's walk-up pool hall on Gay. Jim introduced Charlie to several boys—Jimmy Henry, aka "Hoghead," and reform-school alum Billy Ray Callahan. "Red" Callahan would come to a violent end, but he was a friend of Jim and Charlie's.
As a paperboy, Jim delivered the news of the beginning of World War II, and the end of it. He picked up the nickname J-Bone at old Catholic High, on Magnolia. He sometimes visited Charlie at his home on the rural edge of South Knoxville. "Charlie's daddy did not take a liking to me," he told us. "Maybe because he thought I was, I don't know, a tough guy."
On a lark that started with a conversation on Gay Street, Jim and Charlie took a three-month trip up North and lived off work in restaurants. He kept photographs of them on a Maine beach.
Later, when McCarthy was on leave from the Air Force, Jim showed him to a new haunt, on Cumberland Avenue near Gay. "Charlie had an old-model Ford then, and pulled it up in front of the Huddle. I introduced him to one or two there."
A quarter-century later, that memorable setting, and some of its denizens, would appear in the novel Suttree. As would characters Hoghead, Callahan, and J-Bone himself.
Hardly any character who's not a well-known historical figure is described in a novel with such specific accuracy. In McCarthy's Suttree, Jim appears by his real name and as "J-Bone" The novel includes Jim's real home address, 1504 Grand Ave., and even his real ca. 1950 phone number. That fact has astonished certain literary scholars, leading to suspicions that Suttree is not purely a work of fiction.
Jim surprised us with a photograph of himself, looking healthier, though it was taken just early last month. He's walking into the new bar on Gay Street, Suttree's. He seemed tickled to know about it.
Cormac McCarthy had stayed in touch with Long over the years, sending him postcards, some of them addressed to J-Bone. Just after this last visit, the author sent him a letter attesting that the novel Suttree would not exist without Jim.
When we brought up his unique place in American literature, J-Bone grinned. "I just never paid too much attention," he said.
Correction: Jim Long was born in 1930, not 1931.