Blue Rider Press. 2018. 289 pages.
Reviewed by Scott Ray
Time after time in Nick White’s second book, Sweet and Low, characters confront dilemmas they “haven’t yet found a language for.” In “Cottonmouth, Trapjaw, Water Moccasin” a solitary bigot is crushed underneath a wrecked lawnmower, bellowing impotently knowing “no one would hear him,” out alone in the country, abandoned by a son whose lifestyle he has condemned. An entire rural town is scandalized by erotic renderings of teenage conjoined twins in “These Heavenly Bodies.” The young artist doesn’t get a chance to explain his obsession with capturing their likeness before his young voice is silenced by the police. There are no easy endings in these stories—they often end with the threat or the stroke of violence. The telling itself is what gets us through, even if the telling has necessarily had the edges smoothed off.
Nick White is a Mississippi native, as any Mississippi native would recognize from the first story in this collection. While Faulkner created a fictional Yoknapatawpha County, White almost always opts for the vivid, real geography of Mississippi. He writes of the Delta’s “bleeding red clay” littered with “fields complete with irrigation machines and faraway tractors. His characters drive through Jackson Mississippi and up and down I-55, that artery pulsing up the center of the state.
I hesitate to place any author under the giant Southern shadow of Faulkner, but White invites comparisons to other authors with his epigraph from another titan of Mississippi, Eudora Welty and another by equally great, but less well-known Delta writer, Lewis Nordan. In one story White’s narrator is a struggling writer in a fictionalized Oxford (the only time the landscape seems intentionally obfuscated, in the same locale where Faulkner did the same thing) where the ghost of a famous “Author,” (obviously Faulkner, down to a minimally augmented biography) sucks the air out of every room. The protagonist finds himself the curator of the “Author’s” home (obviously Rowan Oak) where he has sex in the old “Author’s” bed (another character has sex on his grave!) —a literary usurpation as defiant as any since a Barry Hannah character killed peacocks in his debut novel, Geronimo Rex, symbolically exorcising the influence of Flannery O’Connor. Further, an entire story, “The Exaggerations,” contemplates storytelling directly when the protagonist describes his tall-telling uncle’s exaggerations as “trying to shape the world into something better than it was.” His uncle, he says, couldn’t “face the finalities of life—unexplainable death, loss of loves, petty hates and injustices—and so, in memory, he colored events differently.”
Any southern writer must somehow peek out from under the shadows of Faulkner and O’Connor whether they invoke them or not—reviewers and blurbs will reference them no matter what. Nick White remakes the southern world in his own image as any emerging writer would, but he has the added challenge of expanding the cis, often toxically masculine, atmosphere that pervades much of the literature of Mississippi, especially the “Grit Lit” ethos of many writers to come out of Oxford. White writes characters struggling to live their lives within the conservative strictures of the traditional structure of Southern culture. This is a system the characters grew up in and are in many ways defined by, despite its consistent denial of the right of queer bodies to exist within it. This complicated negotiation brings to mind the stories of Dorothy Allison, a writer whose working-class queer characters often find themselves rebelling against roots that are also integral to their understanding of themselves. How does one navigate this difficult terrain without filling the space with stories of one’s own? The uncle mentioned previously is one of many queer characters in the collection struggling to find a place in the still deeply repressive Deep South. His stories, despite being more glamorous or more fantastic or more mythologized or simply more palatable than the truths from which they spring,