The week David Madden turned 80, he took a long walk around his hometown.
Though he's one of Knoxville's best-known living authors, Madden hasn't been a regular on our sidewalks in half a century. After several teaching posts in the '60s, he was, for 40 years, a writer in residence at Louisiana State University, where he eventually became head of LSU's creative-writing program. In 2009 he moved back, or almost back: He and his wife live in Black Mountain, N.C. He's been showing up here in town more lately, and still knows his way around. And even when he's been gone, whether his readers know it or not, his memories of Knoxville keep churning up in his fiction. Sometimes Madden's Knoxville shows up in rural Eastern Kentucky. Sometimes, as is the case with his latest novel, Knoxville emerges in 17th-century London. You might have to know where to look.
Madden was once Knoxville's literary prodigy, our boy wonder; at 16, he won second prize in a statewide one-act play competition. His play, Call Herman to Supper, was performed in Ayres Hall in 1949. Later, his novels got national attention, among them Cassandra Singing, The Pleasure-Dome, and The Suicide's Wife, which in 1979 became a CBS movie starring Angie Dickinson in the title role.
His 1974 novel, Bijou, an explicit coming-of-age novel with the Gay Street landmark as its hub, is the one that stirred the most nervous speculation here. Set in a thinly disguised downtown Knoxville, it's at turns hilarious and appalling, as it follows the adventures of precocious 13-year-old Lucius Hutchfield, a thinly disguised version of David Madden. Though he changed the name of the place to Cherokee, it's arguably one of the three essential novels about Knoxville, but unlike James Agee's A Death In the Family and Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, it's now out of print.
For some years the national literati followed Madden's trajectory. Authors from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King praised his work. The New York Times' James Atlas once compared him to Jean-Paul Sartre.
But Madden's never been predictable. In his mid-40s—as he told reporters he was working on a magnum opus about the historical complexity of his hometown, a novel to be called Knoxville, Tennessee—he shifted his energies in other directions. Though he continued to write fiction, he devoted many of his later years to scholarship and criticism. Madden's a well-known champion of James M. Cain, a founder of the hardboiled-mystery genre. The same David Madden also founded the United States Civil War Center at LSU. His idiosyncratic take on that war has become a favorite lecture subject and brought him to Knoxville a couple of weeks ago. At the East Tennessee History Center, he gave a dramatic reading about the war's paradoxes from the point of view of the main character in his 1996 novel Sharpshooter, which had evolved from his old "Knoxville" project.
At an age when some writers run out of steam, or ideas, Madden still likes to surprise. "I'm deep into seven books," he says, both novels and nonfiction works.
His last published book is one of his surprises. Published by the University of Tennessee Press, it's called London Bridge in Plague and Fire. Set mostly in 17th-century London, it's written in an unconventional, discursive style, part history, part supernatural horror story. Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, calls it "spellbinding." Well-known Carolina novelist Ron Rash calls it Madden's "masterpiece."
Madden has done a good deal of traveling in Great Britain and Europe and knows his subject. But when he sees bridges in other places, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Pont Alexandre III in Paris, he always thinks of the first bridge he ever knew well. It's where we start our stroll.
"London Bridge is the Gay Street Bridge," he says, even though in the era of his book, London Bridge supported a busy street of urban buildings, high over the Thames. When he wrote his book, he says, "I pictured houses and shops on the Gay Street Bridge."
We walk about 50 yards out, standing high above the shore, within the Calhoun's barbecue aroma zone. "You can stand on the Gay Street Bridge and tell the whole story of Knoxville," Madden says.
Some of that story is personal. He has known people who jumped from the bridge. He speaks of a nephew's wife, killed in a freak accident in 1985, when her Buick spun across the icy bridge, broke through the railing and went over. For the rest of his life, his brother, John "Sunshine" Madden, the perennial third-party candidate well known for his orations in City Council, advocated reinforced railings for the bridge.
These current concrete railings would probably have prevented the fatal accident. Madden notes the bridge's 2004 reconstruction date, heralded on a plaque—and that John, who died in 2001, didn't see it completed.
Madden confesses a preoccupation with bridges. "It's an idea that is important to me. It's why I like towers." He points toward the obscure masonry water-intake tower, just past the marina, built in the 1890s and now almost forgotten. "I'd climbed up on it," he says. "You can still do that, if you're brave." He gives you a skeptical look. Maybe not today.
He remembers the shantytowns and old houseboats that still cluttered the riverbank in the '40s, some nautical squatters moored along a "spit" into the water. He described the riverfront shantytown scene in his 1974 novel, Bijou, five years before Cormac McCarthy used it as a more primary setting in his novel Suttree.
Madden and McCarthy were born the same July, within days of each other. They both grew up running wild in the streets of downtown Knoxville, befriending minor criminals. They eventually described downtown's dense, complicated scenes in their fiction. Somehow they didn't know each other. "I've never laid eyes on him," says Madden of McCarthy.
Also visible from here is the Sevier Avenue site of the old East Tennessee Packing Co. A lot of Madden's family worked at that meat factory over the years. The novelist was, in fact, named for the factory's boss, whose name was also David Madden; any family relationship is obscure, if it exists at all. The elder David Madden "took my daddy under his wing," the author says, and he was named in gratitude.
He could smell the place when he lived in a duplex on the hill, near where the Marriott is now, when he was finishing up at Knoxville High School, in the last class to graduate from the big building still prominent on Fifth Avenue. From where we stand, peeking out of the woods on a hillside above Sevier Avenue, he can see his grandmother's old white house on Pedigo Street.
"I go on a pilgrimage by it every time I come to Knoxville," he says.
He makes the rounds, dropping in on several places, including his birthplace in Lincoln Park. He adds a little ruefully that he may be the only Knoxville writer whose birthplace, at 2722 Henegar Road, is still standing. He points beyond the empty hospital, toward Vestal. "That was, to me, a dangerous, scary place—where the mean kids were," he says. "But later I had girlfriends who lived there."
His family, who were usually poor, moved frequently. For a spell, when his mother was ill, he even lived in an orphanage. "I've lived in every part of Knoxville. I cherish every single one of these neighborhoods, and people."
Near the end of the bridge, now an open space, he recalls a dense commercial block, impossible to picture today. "There were two buildings here," he says in the small grassy space between Hill Avenue and the bridge, on the west side. One was a grocery store, one a used-books store. About finding the bookstore he says, "I was practically pissing in my pants, I was so excited."
The place, called, simply, the Knoxville Bookstore, had books he couldn't find elsewhere, and old magazines, all affordable. He picked up Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre, which, years after its original publication, was still being banned in several cities around the nation for sexual scenes that seemed pornographic in its day. Never previously a big reader, at 13, he bought the book for the sex, but read the whole thing.
Sexuality is a major theme in his work, often the foremost of the many preoccupations of Bijou's autobiographical character, Lucius Hutchfield.
"Even now, whether it's in Istanbul, or someplace in America, I just walk and walk and walk."
He's put on some weight, as writers and editors tend to do, and says he's grateful for this chance to walk some of it off. He says he's glad to see what's happening to the old place. He points to the Medical Arts Building, undergoing a residential conversion. It once housed the office of a Dr. Inge. When an ankle sprained while trespassing in an automobile junkyard wouldn't heal, 70-odd years ago, the first fear was that it was polio.
"Dr. Inge kept me from becoming a cripple," he says. Surgery left scars still visible, but rendered him able to walk with ease, even at age 80. "He was a good man, but kind of gruff. My mother didn't like him at all."
A disguised version of Dr. Inge appears in Bijou. Still around, he got a complimentary copy. Madden recalls his old doctor's review.
"That is a very nasty book," Dr. Inge said. "I don't know why you'd want me to read it." Madden grins when he tells the story. If it bothered him then, he's gotten over it.
Next door is the old post office, among Madden's favorite buildings. He thought of this as "the epitome of serenity" when he saw the 1949 movie The Fountainhead, based on the Ayn Rand novel about an uncompromising architect. (It starred Knoxville actress Patricia Neal. "She was a goddess to me," Madden says, but he never knew her.)
Madden can hardly finish a thought—every corner reminds him of another memorable event or person. At the Andrew Johnson Hotel, he spent hours talking to playwright Tennessee Williams, in town for his father's funeral in 1957. At Main and Gay, he remembers one of downtown's most regular pedestrians, John R. Neal, the attorney-professor fired from the University of Tennessee for his manifold insubordinations. Neal worked with Clarence Darrow on the defense of John Scopes in 1925, and later drafted the documents that made TVA seem legal. "I used to know him. He'd smile at me, wave at me," he says.
Madden stops in front of the well-armed Spanish-American War statue on the courthouse lawn. "I remember when my little brother John was sitting on top of that hat." The kid was just 6 or 7 but got loose and climbed up the statue before anyone noticed. It looks difficult, but Madden's been recalling it vividly for years; the scene appears in Bijou. He and his older and younger brothers, he says, were more or less the Marx Brothers. Dickie, who was witty and unpredictable, was Groucho. "My little brother John was Harpo, very innocent. I'm Chico," he says, without further explanation.
"In those days we all ran the streets," he says.
"My mother worked there," he says, pointing across Gay Street. "She worked at a cigar stand." She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and claimed to hate Knoxville, but spent most of her life here. "She was a short woman, a little overweight, but very pretty," he says, and popular with men.
On our long walk, Madden says "My mother worked there" so often, you start to suspect he's pulling your leg. Emile Madden worked in a lot of different places, most of them downtown. Her father, David's grandfather, who worked at Chavannes Lumber, shot himself—or, as Madden speculates, was murdered.
His own father was not at home much. "My daddy was not a daddy, but I loved him," he says. Both his parents had other romantic interests. The story of how his mother spotted his father in a tryst and persuaded the streetcar driver to stop so she could get out and slap him is a family legend. Both his brothers were in and out of jail. If the Maddens were dysfunctional, David seems to have no complaints today. It's all material.
"I'm crammed full of this town," he says. "I always have been."
We reach the Bijou, where Madden has almost too much to say. It's his former employer, his stage, his setting, both for his fiction and for his life. "The Bijou is one of the sacred places in my life. It's like an altar," he says.
Madden describes older brother Dickie as a "low-level con man," but also as likeable and talented. The strangest story he tells of Dickie was during a period his brother was missing, believed to have escaped from reform school. David hadn't seen his brother in months. To promote the 1946 biopic The Al Jolson Story, the Bijou sponsored a Jolson-impression contest. "With no warning to me, Dickie showed up on stage, doing a routine." He was actually pretty good, and won the contest. David Madden later did some acting on that stage, himself.
While teaching writing at several colleges in the '60s, a Rockefeller grant allowed him to travel.
"I went to Venice to write Bijou," he says. "I saw Venice as an externalization of the strangeness of Knoxville. Knoxville to me was wonderfully bizarre and mysterious. My feeling when I first went to Venice was, ‘I'm home.'"
He lived in a pensione where the elderly Ezra Pound had recently lived and befriended Nebraska-raised novelist Wright Morris. Madden was having difficulty getting down this story of his youth, and confessed to Morris that he thought his attitude toward his juvenile hero was too "grown up."
Morris responded, "David, just write the damn thing, quit thinking about it!"
Madden says Venice seemed too much like Knoxville to get the proper distance. He moved to communist Yugoslavia, and with fewer distractions, had an easier time of it.
Published by Crown in 1974, Bijou was heavily based on his own youth in Knoxville, around 1946, when, barely 13, he worked as an usher at the theater. It's both a nostalgic visit to an era just before TV, when America entertained itself mainly in movie theaters—and a gritty and sometimes harrowing view of complex friendships, family relationships, and sexual obsessions, expressed with a frankness that unnerved older readers.
Madden now says he regrets that he changed the names of most landmarks in Bijou, just as his idol Thomas Wolfe did when he wrote about Asheville. In the novel, Knoxville is "Cherokee." Gay Street is "Sevier Street." Only the Bijou itself, Market Square, and a couple other spots, retain their real names. "There were so many people I didn't want to upset, didn't want mad at me," he says. "But I didn't fool anybody, I don't think."
In the late 1940s, the Bijou was a family movie theater that occasionally offered legitimate drama, sometimes with big stars like John Barrymore or Montgomery Clift. But by the time Madden was writing Bijou, it was a porn theater.
Toward the end of the novel, in an almost science-fiction fantasy, Lucius wistfully daydreams about restoring the Bijou. The novel came out in 1974, the same year a popular renovation effort began changing it back into a performing-arts venue. He thinks it was a happy coincidence.
"But I hope you can make a case that I was very prophetic," he says. Even when he lived in Louisiana, Madden contributed to the Bijou's restorations.
The novel earned national recognition, some of it ecstatic. In a 1976 essay about the state of literature in The New York Times, author Stephen King declared that Bijou was "one of the books I admire most in the world," adding that it was better than his own then-current bestseller, Salem's Lot, "by several lengths ... Bijou is a better book." King said he felt "guilty" for making more money than Madden but acknowledged that accessibility was part of it. "To get through Bijou, you have to make a commitment; to get through Salem's Lot, all you need is a sunpad and a pair of eyes and you're in business."
We stop in at the Bistro at the Bijou for some refreshment. Deviating from the writer stereotype, Madden doesn't drink alcoholic beverages. One bad experience with martinis in the 1960s was enough to get him to swear off. He orders a bottle of Pellegrino.
An extraordinarily impressionable youth, he saw the movie The Razor's Edge in 1946, starring Tyrone Power and based on a Somerset Maugham novel. Madden became a Maugham idolater, and like the hero of the book, "I decided to run away to India—at 13 or 14. I only got as far as Atlanta." The episode appears in Bijou, but Asheville's transposed for Atlanta.
Madden did eventually run away to join the Merchant Marine, an adventure that became the basis for his first novel, The Beautiful Greed.
At 500 pages in published form, Bijou was long, but hardly the longest manuscript he ever pitched. Madden had begun Cassandra Singing as a very young man; as a play, it debuted in 1955 at the Carousel Theatre, on what was then the far western edge of campus. Madden didn't get to answer any "Author!" calls; he was on a troop ship to Alaska at the time.
He'd joined the Army, and he suspects his Alaska assignment was punishment for insubordination. "But it was the old Br'er Rabbit thing." Alaska gave him a chance to write. "I won't say I had a great time, but I didn't have a bad time."
Madden sent the novel version of Cassandra Singing to his first book's editor, Robert Loomis, known for his work with William Styron and others. It was over 1,400 pages long. Loomis responded, "I can't lift the damn thing, much less read it."
Its main setting was Lonsdale. To make it shorter, Madden realized, he'd have to set it somewhere else. Knoxville just had too much setting, requiring too much description. So he put it in rural Kentucky and had a manageable-length novel. Published in 1969, Cassandra Singing got critical praise—Joyce Carol Oates called it "haunting," a word that means a lot, coming from her—and a screenplay contract that got him an office at Warner Bros. in Hollywood for a while. But the idyll ended with some administrative shifts, and the movie was never produced.
Madden fancied himself an actor, and performed a few supporting roles in local productions at the Bijou, from the boxing drama Golden Boy to The Merchant of Venice. He says John Cullum, the acting talent from Island Home, was a close friend. He's proud they once performed together in a 1956 production of Petrified Forest at the Carousel, Cullum taking the lead.
Madden recalls that Cullum once asked him, "Think I can make it in New York?" Madden says he replied that Cullum had the presence and talent to make it, but added, "You'll never be a leading man." Cullum's played a few leading roles, but he has won his greatest acclaim, including a couple of Tonys, in supporting roles.
Madden, outgoing by the standards of writers, knew everybody. The week's news of the Greenwood mural's moving project stirred a memory of the legendary artist Marion Greenwood, who lived in Knoxville for a year, 1954-55. "Yes, I knew her. She was a very glamorous and beautiful woman," he says. "She painted my portrait." He says he has it somewhere.
Refreshed, we start walking again over these old sidewalks.
From a poor family, Madden might not have expected to go to college. The fact that he did was partly thanks to another extraordinary family.
"See that boarded-up window?" he says. It figures that David Madden would find reason to point to one of the last boarded-up windows on Gay Street, diagonally above Cairo Cafe. "That was where the Attic Players met and rehearsed. It was a little theater group."
They never actually mounted a real play. But it was up there the teenage Madden met Raven Van Vactor. "She was very beautiful and exotic: pure white skin, raven-black hair." Her father was David Van Vactor, composer and longtime conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, which often performed at the Bijou. The Van Vactors liked their daughter's new thespian friend and needed a babysitter for their younger son, Davy. They lived in a house on Kingston Pike with a balcony over the river and would send their butler, Hendricks, out in a Cadillac to pick up Madden. He especially appreciated it when Hendricks dropped him off at Knoxville High, for his friends to witness.
The Van Vactors helped pay his tuition to UT. Years later, Madden and Raven hung around together in bebop-era New York, when she was a sometime lover of trumpet legend Miles Davis. She was ambitious for a major career in drama, studying in New York for a while, then moving to Hollywood. "It was not what she dreamed of," Madden says.
"They were the most influential family in my life," he says, "right up until each one died." The only survivor is the boy he babysat, Davey, who lives in Paris. "They were all romantics."
On Church Avenue near Market, the recently sold Ely Building is a setting in Bijou and in Madden's life. Accessed by a basement entrance below the sidewalk, the Letter Shop employed typists, three or four women who, at 25 cents a page, rendered a teenager's first fiction presentable for editors.
Across from the Tennessee Theatre, on a block since demolished and rebuilt, was an Orange Julius and next to it was the Sanitary Sandwich Shop, one of his favorite lunch places.
"It was quite narrow, all counter, that ran the length of it," he says. It seemed exotic to him, because it was run by Greek immigrants, members of the prominent Caracostis family. "I didn't know about Greek food, but I always got the roast-beef sandwich with gravy, with the tastiest gravy you ever ate." He says he's tried for years to duplicate it, but failed.
He sometimes went by his first name, Jerry. When his mother worked at Mayme-McCampbell, the women's-wear store on the 500 block of Gay—"it was very elegant, but affordable," he says—his mother would say, "Jerry, I'll meet you at the S&W." The art-deco cafeteria was almost next door, and he especially remembers Slim, the lanky, acrobatic waiter. "The organist would flirt with me," he says.
Suddenly, on the Gay Street sidewalk, he's speaking in a mellifluous radio voice, like Orson Welles. "This is WKGN, atop the Park National Bank building, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Correct Eastern Standard Time now, 10:00. This is Jerry Madden, inviting you to stay tuned for the Night Watchman program."
He was, at 16, a radio announcer. WKGN was a pop station, but as a request from his girlfriend, he played Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Overture." He got in trouble for it. When he protested he was improving his listener's standards, his boss replied, "Your little ass is fired!"
Today, it's all funny.
Curious about Suttree's, a bar named for another novelist's persona, he pops in for a quick chat with the barmaid. He doesn't drink beer, but he likes the looks of the place.
Madden's family was all over downtown. Walking around with him, maybe it still is. His grandmother ran a café down near the old fire station, at State and Commerce; the widow eventually married a fireman. His Uncle Phil worked as an usher at the Strand Theater, near Suttree's. "I spent a lot of time at the Strand," he says. He was often sent there when things got to be too much at home.
At the corner of Gay and Summit Hill is the Knoxville Visitors Center, a clean, cheerfully modern place. Madden knows it mainly for an old family story. It was where his parents met.
"Out there, on the streetcar tracks," he says, pointing as if they're still there. "That's where my parents met. Dad saw her all dressed up and said, ‘Where you going, pretty girl?'" She replied she was going on a date. His father replied, "I know you're going on a date, but it's with me."
Somehow it worked. "That's where all hell broke loose, over the years," Madden adds.
Jimmy Madden wasn't much of a family man, but he was well liked all over downtown. After his early years in the packing plant, he was a fabric cutter for Breezy Wynn's factory on the 100 block, next door to the Emporium building. Much of what Madden remembers is familiar to anyone who has studied Knoxville, but his memories can startle. He recalls a friendly Chinese man who ran a bookstore on Gay's now-vanished 200 block. Known as Ben Kwok, the man had three college degrees and had published poetry in international Chinese magazines about the Smoky Mountains.
It's been a couple hours now, more of talking than walking. We circle back toward Market Square, which is described in Bijou with rich accuracy. He once sold socks at Bowers, the big store on the east side.
"What's that?" He's looking at the "Woods & Taylor" tile work on Wall Avenue. He doesn't recognize it. Revealed in recent years, it's from a business that was there before his time.
He remembers the Roxy Theatre on Union, the burlesque and second-run movie house. "It was pretty nasty, but not as nasty as the Crystal [on Market Square]," he says—though he appreciated the proprietor's tactic of piping movie soundtracks out onto the sidewalk to entice passers by.
Finally Madden stops in the middle of the Square, where a marble plaque quotes a descriptive passage from Bijou, between similar pieces by James Agee and McCarthy.
"I'm really proud of that plaque," he says. "It matters to me that Knoxville appreciates what I do."
He cites his old friend James M. Cain, who once offered an uncustomarily awkward mouthful on the subject of fame. "I don't lack for at least as much recognition as I deserve," Madden says.