HED:'Younger Than That Now' remarkable story of remarkable friendship
By Danny McKenzie
When reading "Younger Than That Now: A Passage From the Sixties," it is wise to remember the reason stereotypes become stereotypes: truth.
Jeff Durstewitz and Ruth Williams have fashioned a remarkable book, or, rather, "a unique, epistolary memoir" according to Bantam Books public relations types, based on their 30-year friendship.
What makes "Younger Than That Now" remarkable, is the remarkablility of the friendship between Durstewitz, now from Saratoga Springs, N.Y, and Williams, now from Jackson.
Both the authors will be at Reed's Gum Tree Book Store in Tupelo at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and at Square Books in Oxford (and on Thacker Mountain Radio) at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday.
It began on a 1969 fluke, when through a strange set of circumstances Durstewitz and his high school journalism pals on Long Island, got a copy of a Yazoo City High School newspaper, and wrote a scathing, insensitive letter to Williams, the paper's editor.
Her reply caught Durstewitz off guard, and thus began a friendship that has endured for more than 30 years. While they got to know each other later that first year, they maintained their friendship through the years by writing letters to each other deep, insightful letters discussing the most intimate details of their lives and their feelings for one another and for the chaotic world around them.
As for the stereotypes, they're all there: the button-down collar, Oxford cloth shirts and penny loafers of Yazoo City and the tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom jeans, army fatigue coats of New York, and almost any other aspect of the '70s, including the drugs and free love.
Stereotypes are rarely based on myths, and "Younger Than That Now" is an accurate picture of that most unusual time of the 20th century.
Before he died, Willie Morris, who encouraged the authors to launch this project, wrote: " 'Younger Than That Now' is the most honest, compelling book I've ever read about the 1960s generation and its coming to maturity. Fresh, moving, funny, and incisive, it encompasses many very American things: the differences and mutualities in the North and South, ambitious, defeats, and loves, and the passing of time itself across a broad national landscape."
While the Williams-Durstewitz relationship actually began in 1969, each of the writers offers "Younger Than That Now" readers glimpses of their early lives, thereby explaining their prejudices they spend 30 years trying to work through, and their common beliefs they spend 30 years sharing.
Through it all the college days, the professional days, the married days their on-again, off-again letter-writing continued. They kept all the letters, Williams and Durstewitz did, and, Durstewitz said, " We clung to them because we knew they contained something priceless the keys to our souls, the record of who we were and who we were becoming."
There is little they didn't discuss. It's all there, from the Vietnam War to the civil rights to religion to their feelings for their friends and each other to their loves and loves lost.
While Williams and Durstewitz are, of course, the main "characters" in "Younger Than That Now," some of their friends will be easily recognized: JoAnne Prichard and Harriet DeCell of Williams' Yazoo City and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Durstewitz' Long Island (the Ben and Jerry of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream).
On the back cover is a quote by Ellen Douglas, one of the finest of all Mississippi writers, whose most recent book was titled "Truth."
" 'Younger Than That Now' took be back abruptly to the sixties and seventies when my sons and their friends (and parents, too) were grappling with the upheavals and tragedies of Vietnam, the sexual revolution, and the Civil Rights Movement," Douglass wrote. "The passage of time has blurred and thrown shadows over all those crises, that anguish the courage and hope and naivete and illusion and foolishness that we all to some degree participated in. 'Younger Than That Now' brings that time vividly back to life. It rings with authenticity."
Indeed. "Younger Than That Now" is so authentic, that readers of a certain age will wonder how they ever survived it all.