The ninth or 10th annual Agee Crash Bash—no one can remember if it started in 1999 or 2000—was held at the Checker Flag Sports Bar on Clinton Highway, near Emory Road, just past the Spritz & Glitz beauty salon and right in front of Beaver Creek, on a recent wet and foggy Sunday night. About 30 people—more than expected, since this year’s Crash Bash wasn’t officially announced—gathered for an informal ceremony, led by unofficial master of ceremonies Jack Neely, in memory of novelist James Agee’s father.
James “Jay” Agee died in a car crash at approximately the site of the bar, as best as anyone can tell, on May 18, 1916. The Crash Bash also recognizes Agee’s fictional counterpart, Jay Follett, whose death under similar circumstances provided the factual and emotional background for Agee’s posthumous 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family.
It’s pure happenstance that the Checker Flag, opened decades after the fatal auto accident, has built its business around a NASCAR theme; life-size cardboard cut-outs of Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. look down from the walls, and a giant-screen television takes up prominent space in front of the dart boards. More happenstance: This year’s Crash Bash, only the second to fall on a Sunday, took place the same weekend as NASCAR’s all-star race, which is held on Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon, so the Bash’s assemblage of journalists, academics, librarians, and assorted downtown literary types didn’t displace the bar’s regular patrons.
Neely led the traditional toast to the elder James Agee—mostly cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, which Checker Flag owner Earlene Lytle stocks up on in early May in anticipation of the Bash—at 8:15 p.m., around the estimated time of the crash. Neely then introduced two of Agee’s cousins, Annabell and John Agee—“I’m glad you came. You lend some legitimacy to this gathering” he half-joked—before turning the floor over to Jack Rentfro, who read an edited version of the “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” prologue to A Death in the Family. The video game monitor on the bar beeped as he neared the end.
Rentfro was followed by University of Tennessee psychology professor and avocational Cormac McCarthy scholar Wes Morgan, who read a passage from the 2007 edition of A Death in the Family, which excised parts of the 1957 edition, added new chapters, and reordered others. The passage Morgan read described 6-year-old Rufus Follett’s streetcar trip with his father, Jay, from downtown Knoxville to Chilhowee Park—north on Gay Street, across the Southern Railroad Depot viaduct, right on Magnolia Avenue, past big houses and then smaller ones, past “the place where Mama always said, ‘We lived there when we came from Kalamazoo,’” out into what was then the country.
As Morgan concluded, the so-called Cotter Pin of Destiny was passed around the room. Rentfro found the antique and rusted piece of broken-off machinery outside the Checker Flag five or six years ago and has tried ever since to pass it off as the small bit of metal that reportedly came dislodged from the steering column on Jay Follett’s car and precipitated the crash in the novel. Crash Bash tradition dictates that each attendee touch the pin before it’s handed over to a keeper for the coming year. Rentfro said the pin would speak to its caretaker; in the end, it was handed to John Agee.
Eric Sublett read from Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and remarked on Agee’s concern in the book for a certain kind of “asymmetrical” representation of Alabama sharecroppers. Sublett said his father, the painter Carl Sublett, who died in January, always told him that “symmetry creates stability and asymmetry creates movement” in painting.
As the gathering broke up, Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’” and David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (another Crash Bash tradition) could be heard from the digital jukebox in the corner. Neely thanked the Agee family for showing up and invited them back next year. Then he remembered that John Agee holds the Cotter Pin of Destiny.
“You better come back a year from now,” he said.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Annabell Agee told her cousin.