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Lewis Nordan: Music of the Swamp

Nordan’s novel is about Sugar Mecklin, a boy living in the Delta. The first part is told in the third person but later moves to the first person. It opens on a happy note. Sugar has had a dream about a mermaid who could foretell the future or endow him with power and knowledge. And when he got up, Elvis was playing on the radio, the first time he had ever hear him singing. Sugar believes that it was a special day and something new and completely different from anything he had ever known was about to jump out at him. He hugs his father, Gilbert, and tells him that he loves him. His father, an alcoholic, a house painter by profession and a man of little communication skills who likes to listen to Bessie Smith’s wrist-cutting music, is surprised. Sugar goes out fishing with his friend, Sweet Austin. On the way he sees a baptism and the songs they are singing remind him of Elvis Presley. While the boys are fishing, they find a dead body. They go back to Sugar’s home and, while Sugar is looking for paternal affection, his father wants a drink.

The second part of the novel moves to the first person. Much of it is about Sugar’s relationship to his father and his concern at his parents’ unhappy marriage. We follow his adventures – sitting on an electric chair, which the state is taking around the towns, riding freight trains, going increasingly further away and going to a beach town with his parents who are trying (but fail) to rekindle their love for one another. The closest he comes to his father is when he receives a rifle for Christmas and father and son go hunting. They find the pharmacist, Mr. Shanker, passed out drunk and dying, as he has swallowed his tongue. Gilbert, with the reluctant aid of Sugar, frees the tongue and saves Mr. Shanker’s life. Mr. Shanker wakes up enough to tell Gilbert’s father to give him morphine but Gilbert gives him a fatal overdose. They don’t go hunting, though, at least from Gilbert’s point of view, it seems more because of his shoes than because, as Sugar, says, that he is a murderer.

In the last part, the parents are divorced and Gilbert has attempted suicide. There is an attempt at a reconciliation but it doesn’t work and Gilbert is later killed in a tornado. His mother tells him that Gilbert was not his biological father. In the epilogue, Sugar reflects on a drive he went on with his father but, as he tells it to his lover, he wonders whether he might not have imagined it.

Nordan is a short-story writer and this is a novel but it is really a collection of stories put together (the first part was published separately as a story). It does have a recurring theme – father-son relationships – and the same hero so it can count as a novel. But Nordan’s skill is telling a story where description and character are stronger than plot and he does that very well.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Algonquin Books