Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Simulation and Civil Rights: Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle and the Swamp of the Real

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Simulation and Civil Rights: Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle and the Swamp of the Real

Article excerpt

IN LEWIS NORDAN'S WOLF WHISTLE, THE NATIONAL MEDIA DESCENDS ON Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, in the aftermath of a murder based on the Emmett Till case, described by David Halberstam as "the first great media event of the civil rights movement" (347). (1) Surveying a terrain predetermined by mass culture, they are disappointed when their offer of two dollars "just to hear a verse or two of 'Old Man River' by an authentic soul of the South" is refused by "colored men [who] said they couldn't recollect ever having heard of that song" (213). But the Southern landscape they import is not only quaint, it is abject--pre-themed as the very abyss of American economic and cultural backwardness. The reporters conclude that "Faulkner was only a reporter'--"only," as one puts it, "the camera's eye" (214). The uncanny thing about the reporters is that they, too, are only reporters: between the predetermined landscape they import and recycle in print and the landscape already overdetermined by local arrangements, there lies a disorienting similarity. When a local man repeats a joke about "a nigger trying to swim across [Lake] Roebuck with a gin fan he had stolen," he is chagrined to find his words on the front page of the New York Times represented as if he "actually believed this to be true" (218). There is distortion here, but there's a good dose of truth, too: it's hardly clear that the joke told as truth is any worse than the joke told as such. As the reporter says, "It wasn't much of a joke" (218). When the local man complains that "all this attention you been giving to this little town is about as bad as a durn nigger murder," the resulting headline reads, "DELTA MAN SAYS REPORTING TRUTH THE SAME AS MURDER" (219). Again, journalistic distortion reproduces a truth--the horrific moral equivalence of the original statement--that hits close to home. As "amazing" as the degraded and abject South appears to the reporters, there is an uncanny resonance to the regional imagery they disseminate to the nation.

Unlike the media's Faulkner, Lewis Nordan is no reporter. Like the media's description of Faulkner, his distortion of an overdetermined cultural terrain reproduces an uncanny terrain--at once recognizable and deformed beyond recognition. In an essay on Faulkner and magical realism, Philip Weinstein offers a useful paradigm for thinking about Wolf Whistle's hyper-reportage of, as Nordan puts it, a "magical landscape just askew of the real, historical universe," a "created planet [that] doesn't quite square with the world I live in" ("Interview" [300-01]). Curiously repeating the idea of Faulkner-as-reporter, Weinstein proposes that Faulkner's "Newton-descended commitment to mimesis [the priority of event to poetic metaphor] that he inherits from realism" impedes his reconfiguring the cultural "loom," "the warp and woof of social space and time" (366, 356). "Faulkner's only available swerve," Weinstein writes, "is not to write another plot but to jam the inherited one.... Rather than reshape his culture's arrangements, Faulkner shows, with ceaseless repercussion, how and why they must collapse" (366). In contrast, Weinstein argues, the tradition of magical realism allows Gabriel Garcia Marquez not merely to jam the loom but to reconfigure it, rewriting "Faulkner's 'might-have-been' as 'what might be,' on a canvas wherein the human figure is once again furnished with self-enacting moves within cooperative time and space" (367). Despite Nordan's claim that during the six weeks it took to write the novel "I had become a magical realist, and was grateful to Latin America for making me possible" ("Making" 76), Wolf Whistle is not especially indebted either to magical realism's cultural archive or to its characteristic synthesis of the magical and the real. Realism is exiled well beyond the town limits of Arrow Catcher, themselves marked by a fictitious sign branding the town as "A GOOD PLACE TO RAISE A BOY" (215). That such a sign actually existed in Sumner, Mississippi, where Till's killers were tried, hardly matters, so radically does Nordan's hyper-reportage submerge historical detail in what he calls "a phantasmagoria based upon history's broadest outline" ("Making" 76). …

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