secret_history (2006-39)

Cheeseburgers, Beer, and Catfish

Knoxville in recent American literature

by Jack Neely

Without much trying to, Knoxville has bred several novelists, and you write what you know, so you write about Knoxville. Cormac McCarthy’s latest, The Road , includes a novel description of Knoxville in which everybody in town is dead.

Knoxville-based novels are nothing new. What’s new is that in the last couple of years, non-Knoxvillians—a couple of them very prominent non-Knoxvillians—have also chosen Knoxville as a setting.

Patricia Cornwell, who placed a Knoxville scene in her locally inspired 1994 bestselling mystery, The Body Farm , returned again to a greater degree in her new novel, At Risk .

Serialized in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago, it concerns Massachusetts cops attending the forensics academy here, becoming intrigued with the 20-year-old murder of a Sequoyah Hills dowager at her riverfront home.

There’s not much local color in the book, which seems pretty thin all around. But what’s there is mostly accurate, reflecting the fact that the author has spent some time here.

There are references to the Old City, specifically Tonic and Barley’s. But it’s regrettable that the Knoxville feature described most fondly is the Tennessee Grill: “Like the other night at the Tennessee Grill, the two of them watching the sun set over the river, a special evening of big cheeseburgers and beer, her aching with the hope that maybe he was as attracted to her as she was to him.” 

No deathless prose, but that scene of a couple of Yankee cops mating over cheeseburgers and beer is the sort of thing a restaurateur would hang on the wall. Except that the place closed a few months ago, shortly before the book’s publication.

The book also mentions an East Bearden jazz club: characters “dressed like preppies, listening to jazz at Forty-Six-Twenty, drinking fruit-infused martinis.” It closed a few weeks ago.

It’s an old Knoxville tradition; as soon as a good local place gets national attention, we shut it down cold. However, word has it that the unusual strip-mall-basement-club will reopen under new management in October.

Volunteer Landing is apparently Cornwell’s favorite non-Body-Farm part of town: in The Body Farm , detective Kaye Scarpetta dines at Calhoun’s, an agreeable experience except for the sea of orange that reminds her of prisonwear in Attica.

Marianne Wiggins was once best known as the wife of the elusive and theologically brazen novelist Salman Rushdie. That’s all over now, and she’s more recently known as author of bestsellers like John Dollar . Her last novel, published in 2003 and now out in paperback, is called Evidence of Things Unseen .

I’ve just gotten around to it, partly through readers’ recommendations. Some think it’s a great book; it was nominated for several awards. It’s about a simple guy named Fos who works in a photographic studio in downtown Knoxville in the 1920s, and his new bride brought home from the North Carolina coast. Over the next 20-odd years, they witness some earth-shaking events here.

It seems forced to me, at least in spots. But it points out what an unlikely nexus this region was, from the Scopes Trial to TVA to the Manhattan Project. We may prefer to think of Knoxville as remote, but the city was central to much of the moral and technological drama of the American 20th century.

Wiggins’ Knoxville suggests the kind of funhouse perspective tourists get after one good visit to a new place, when destinations stubbornly turn out to be in the opposite direction from where you reckon.

Upon bringing Opal home, Fos offers some geographic advice. “River runs from north to south,” Fos advises. “Railroad runs from east to west. Keep those things in mind and you won’t get lost.”

But you probably will. At Knoxville, the river runs roughly east to west, and the railroads run all over the place, as they did then, including north to south.

It’s also hazardous for a writer to write historically about a place without regular access to local libraries. In Wiggins’ 1920s Knoxville, there’s also a place called “Old Town,” which I’ve never heard of; the Old City wasn’t known by that name until the 1980s. On UT’s campus, there’s a “Volunteer Avenue”; UT didn’t expand to create Volunteer Boulevard until the 1960s.

Her book did remind me, though, of the unmet local potential of catfish. It could be our local delicacy. People do catch them in the river, though they’re warned against actually ingesting those; last weekend my cousin and I watched an impressive squadron of catfish patrolling the duck pond in Fountain City. People even fish for them there. I love to buy catfish fresh and cook it at home.

But one local restaurant after another disappoints me with their articulations. Order catfish, and it most often turns out to be a dry golden shaving prepared more for crunch than flavor.

Recently I ordered a catfish luncheon special at a venerable eatery with a reputation for posh preparation. The fish arrived heavily breaded and fried, sliced in narrow strips—to maximize its breaded and fried aspects. It could as easily have been chicken. Maybe it was.

To me, Wiggins’ passage about catfish makes me think she’s been eavesdropping on my personal fantasies.

“The river was so thick with catfish it was said that you could stroll across it from the eastern [sic] shore to Knoxville City on their backs. It was said there are more catfish in the Tennessee than there are fish in all the oceans of the world. More catfish in Knox County than there are Christians, more catfish on supper plates than flies. More catfish inside Knox County bellies than dreams inside Knox County heads….”

She continues. “Every Knoxville woman had her way of doin [sic] catfish same as every Ozark woman had a way of doin hock an’ greens…every man in Knoxville seemed to have but one opinion that he held above all others. And that was how to cook a catfish. There were those who’d argue to the death that no self-respecting man would batter cats with anything other than a bridal veil of stoneground wheat flour from mother Dixie with a zest of salt and at most a dash of pepper the way the Bible says Christ had it done on that occasion of the loaves and fishes. Others swore by cornmeal, some were cayenne-ites and some, god bless their fundamental souls, faced the fire with nothing but their faith in catfish same as every naked soul must face the fires of eternity with nothing but man’s natural juices.”

Her assumptions are unproveable, but it’s my favorite passage in the book. Even though I broil catfish with soy sauce, olive oil and chopped garlic and chili powder and jalapenos. I often eat alone.