HED:Nordan true to form in 'Boy With Loaded Gun'

By Danny McKenzie

Daily Journal

No one has ever accused Lewis Nordan of holding anything back, and after reading "Boy With Loaded Gun" it's doubtful anyone ever will.

"Boy With Loaded Gun," (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; $23.95) is Nordan's "memoir" which is only slightly different from an "autobiography," but probably not much.

"Well," Nordan says, "this is not the story of my life, but some stories from my life." Therein lies the difference.

Whatever the classification, "Boy With Loaded Gun" is Nordan at his finest at least as it pertains to his writing. His life, until the past few years, has by the author's own admission pretty much been anything but fine.

Nordan, who grew up in Itta Bena and was graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, is one of the South's finest writers (though he's lived in Pittsburgh for several years), having penned such memorable books as "Wolf Whistle," "Music of the Swamp," "Lightning Song," and "The Sharpshooter Blues."

At 5 p.m. Thursday, Nordan will be at Off Square Books in Oxford where he will appear on "Thacker Mountain Radio" and sign copies of "Boy With Loaded Gun."

Nordan's first nonfiction effort, "Boy With Loaded Gun" is as engaging as it is troubling. There are, of course, the bizarre parts that leave readers laughing; then, there are other parts that leave readers in, or certainly near, tears.

There are the stories of his childhood: tales of such episodes as putting on his Superman cape and diving headfirst onto the concrete sidewalk, and of going to New York and locking his buck-naked self out of his hotel room.

But there are also admissions of extramarital affairs and alcoholism, and very frank assessments of his divorce and the deaths of two of his sons.

There's the passage early in the book about the first days of television and its audience:

"People didn't watch programs. Expectation of programming had not yet entered our intellectual purview. Content was unimportant. We watched the set. What the set was doing by being turned on was really all that mattered. The idea of a picture appearing there before us was far more interesting than anything we might actually see on the screen, and so no one cared what the program at any given time might happen to be."

Perhaps the most difficult passage comes near the end of the book, when Nordan addresses the suicide of his son, Robin, who, like father, had become a drunk.

"Isn't someone to blame for this horror besides the boy himself? I am. What is a responsible context for the writer to put that piece of information into? ... No matter how much I have grown spiritually over the years since Robin died, no matter how much therapy I've had, no matter how much more I know about depression than I did then, still there are days when the only context that seems reasonable is that I was an inadequate father, that if I hadn't lost my temper that time, if I had succumbed to alcoholism in short, that my son's death was my fault."

Through all, though, it is Nordan's inimitable writing style that sustains the book's readability, and never mind that the reader is learning of the author's son's suicide.

It was a difficult book for Nordan to write. He freely admits that, and he'll tell you he hasn't written a word of fiction since finishing "Boy With Loaded Gun."

"In a way I had to be able to hold myself at arm's length and write about myself as I would any of the characters in my other books," says Nordan, now a professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. "Then at the end of the day it would all come crashing in around me. I would think about writing this and putting it out there for the whole world to see, and I had to ask myself a few times what I was doing."

In the end, Nordan says, "Boy With Loaded Gun" wound up serving as a sort-of catharsis. It helped him put his life in perspective, to come to an understanding of who he is and how various events in his life shaped his life.

"I don't recommend this as a type of therapy," he says, "but it really did relieve me of some of the burdens I've been carrying around for a long, long time."

Nordan says each new day of writing brought surprises, and that not all the stories of his life found their way in to "Boy With Loaded Gun."

"There was a lot of stuff I hadn't really dealt with, and when I sat down each day to write I literally did not know what was going to come out." In many ways, he said, he was as surprised as anyone with the finished product.

But it is that finished product, "Boy With Loaded Gun," that leaves the reader in awe in awe of Nordan's remarkable writing and his even more remarkable courage.

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