Thursday, December 19, 2013

Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles's first novel, Dear American Airlines, was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. A former columnist for the New York Times, he serves as a contributing editor to magazines as diverse as Field & Stream and Details, and writes regularly for the New York Times Book Review and The Literary Review (UK).

Miles's new novel is Want Not.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
Keeper of the Moon: A Southern Boyhood by Tim McLaurin

I plucked this memoir from the shelf of a friend at whose house I was bunking while on book tour last month, thinking I’d revisit it. (Book tours, I’ve found, are usually best for re-reading, not reading; all that travel renders my brain too jangly & vulnerable for any additional new sensation.) But this, as I realized by the second page, was a trick of the mind. I interviewed Tim McLaurin (1953-2002) almost twenty years ago, about his novel Cured by Fire, and because we shared mutual friends, for whom trading outrageous Tim stories was a common pastime, I must’ve absorbed enough McLaurin lore to trick me, when I saw this book’s spine on the shelf, into thinking I’d read it. I hadn't.

Letting Keeper of the Moon slip by me would've been a tragic error, I see now, having just emerged from the book with dumbstruck awe. You could call it a country song of a memoir, the kind of country song you play when you’ve driven your truck down by the lake and opened the doors and popped a beer—except no, scratch that, it’s less a song than an entire country album, because the book veers from rockabilly set pieces (memories of dogfights, cockfights, barfights, fumbly backseat sex, drunken tangles with state troopers) to haunting ballads (suicides, reckless deaths, an alcoholic father, a grueling battle with cancer) to passages that transcend my cheap FM-dial analogy (a brother’s heart-cracking note after donating his bone marrow, that brute father’s riveting moment of grace as he dispenses small mercies to a flock of doomed farmyard ducks).

This is a memoir of McLaurin’s life—his hardscrabble, star-gazing boyhood in Fayetteville, N.C., mostly, with glimpses of his later life as a professional snake handler, Marine, Peace Corps volunteer, and writer—yet it’s less about McLaurin himself than it is about the place and time in which he grew up, and about the folks he grew up with: people for whom, “if you loved hard enough and worked hard enough and filtered each failure through either God or whiskey, you just had to come out ahead in the end,” though of course many didn’t. McLaurin’s lush eloquence doesn’t mask or conceal the painfully raw honesty here; in fact it heightens it, the way certain finishes intensify wood grain. The book rattles, disturbs, confounds, just like the South of the 1950s and ‘60s that it depicts. But the spell it casts is profound and unshakable: here are the scars of a region and its people, fearlessly examined. “I have told you of home,” is how McLaurin ended it, and though the book appears to have dropped out of print, I’m surely not the only one who, having read that last line, felt an immense surge of gratitude.
Read more about Want Not at Jonathan Miles's website.

--Marshal Zeringue