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, allow him and those around him imagine a world at least a little easier to live in.
The most sustained lens through which these trials are examined within the world is the nephew of the uncle, Forney Culpepper. Forney holds together the second half of the collection, the final six stories. Sometimes he’s presented through the third person as a boy, from his own accounting later, and from a few other perspectives as well.
Forney grows into a college student obsessed with becoming a writer—another moment where the collection consciously contemplates what it means to create art. While on a long weekend away from college with his girlfriend and roommate, a young Forney retypes other poets’ work on a typewriter, saying, “I’ve not found the right words for me yet, so I’m using other people’s until then.” It’s only after a night where the sexual tensions between the three culminate in an experience that will alter all of their relationships forever that Forney begins to find his own words in the next morning’s afterglow. This sexual experience at first seems generative and a type of resurrection, until an act of violence ends the story in an even more final dissolution of tension.
White’s true gift is his dedication to character. In just a few pages he can humanize a violent father. In a few strokes identical conjoined twins become three-dimensional separate personalities with unique predilections and quirks. A character recollected by those left behind after his death haunts the pages of “The Lovers” with the same resonance he still commands over the grieving’s psyche. The slow evolution of Forney Culpepper, from precocious youth to sophomoric artist to struggling writer to bitter middle-age is tracked expertly and lovingly and from many angles.
What does it say that the character White focused on so long is in the end uncomforted by his own storytelling? Forney lives in the world his uncle tried to improve, but it has worn him down, just as it finally killed his uncle. In the end, the resolutions of these stories are hard, but they are not without beauty. There are moments of connection and caring. This is what stories can do, Nick White’s characters show us. Stories can take these unexplainable and terribly final things and change them so we can look back and reflect and see how we lived through them. This is an argument for why we need these stories to soften the edges of our lives, even when the stories themselves can be hard to bear. Even when, as the narrator to “The Exaggerations” explains, “in the real story, there was…only the hard silences left by the people we wanted—the people we craved the most—who had already moved on in their lives without us.”
Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a current Contest Fiction Editor at American Literary Review and a reader at Pidgeonholes. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Arkansas and is currently a PhD student at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Measure.