Shocked into Maturity: Sex and Death as Initiation in the Fiction of Lewis Nordan
Bjerre, Thomas Aervold, The Mississippi Quarterly
ONE OF LEWIS NORDAN'S MAIN STRENGTHS AS A WRITER IS HIS DELICATE descriptions of boys and men in existential crises, fathers and sons who are alien to one another yet long to be close. When his writing borders on sentimentality humor always saves it. Nordan's style ranges from goofball comedy to deep tragedy, and he can switch from one to the other within a single scene. He is a comic writer with an ear for tragedy, or maybe the other way around. But as with Mark Twain, one must not equate the humor with lightness in subject matter. There are dark undertows in Nordan's fiction, undertows that are sometimes hard to see because of the humorous style and ludicrous characters.
All of Nordan's novels center on a boy on the verge of manhood. Most of his stories and novels are set in the 1950s and they often take the form of initiation stories, where boy protagonists enter the world of manhood. This places his work in the patriarchal tradition of the Bildungsroman, which has a strong tradition in American literature. From Huck Finn to Hemingway's Nick Adams and Salinger's Holden Caulfield to Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy, American writers have portrayed innocent and maladjusted boys being corrupted and conformed by society. Nordan's novels all contribute to the tradition of the American Bildungsroman, with a Southern twist that echoes both Flannery O'Connor and Erskine Caldwell but is ultimately Nordan's own.
One of the most dominating themes in Nordan's fiction explores sex and death as part of young boys' initiations. Most of his adolescent boys are shocked into maturity, and the ripples of that shock continue to haunt them as grown men. Nordan's four novels, Music of the Swamp (1991), Wolf Whistle (1993), The Sharpshooter Blues (1995), and Lightning Song (1997) all deal with boys who suffer terrible scars in their encounters with the adult world. The boys furthermore have problems dealing with their father figures. Much of this is derived from Nordan's own life; his father died when Nordan was very young. The theme of dead or absent fathers is one of the strongest leitmotifs in Nordan's fiction. The absent father creates a feeling of inferiority and loneliness that all his young males have to cope with along with their struggle to understand and enter the mysterious world of sexuality and manhood. Unfortunately, Nordan's obsession with sons and fathers at times results in a limited depiction of his women characters, who sometimes end up as types.
Two of Nordan's early stories, "Sugar, the Eunuchs, and Big G. B." and "The Sears and Roebuck Catalog Game," serve as a thematic key to his later works, as scenes and events from the stories are played out in the subsequent novels. Sugar Mecklin is the narrator of both stories, although he remains unnamed in the latter. Both stories are poignant tales of a boy trying to understand the world his unhappy parents inhabit, and trying to come to terms with his own budding adolescence.
In their quest for manhood, Nordan's boys follow a typically Freudian pattern: they look to everything masculine around them to get a sense of what it is and how to gain it. They practice it, imitate it, and develop it according to the role models closest to them. Most often, of course, the father becomes the figure of masculinity that boys imitate, but if he is absent or for other reasons does not live up to the boys' definition of masculinity, they will look elsewhere for role models and heroes, in a quest for an ideal of exaggerated masculinity. But even though a father can desert his son, the son can never escape his father. Absent or not, he will always be present in the boy's mind (Pittman 99, 106-07). In Nordan's fiction the sons yearn to progress from their boyhood, but their fathers are incapable of performing their role as mentors. The boys thus become insecure about manhood and masculinity. When their initiations occur, often violently and always prematurely, the boys are caught off-guard. …