When I first heard that V.S. Naipaul was writing a book about the South, it made me nervous. What would the author of Among the Believers make of Jim and Tammy? Could we look for Louisiana: A Wounded Civilization?
Well, I’ve been reading A Turn in the South, just out last winter from Knopf. I’m supposed to review it for another magazine, so I won’t do that here. But I will say that Naipaul takes it easy on us. His characteristic way of working (harder than it looks) is to go around and talk to people, and he found some good Southerners to talk to. He’s properly impressed with our religiosity, and he even kind of admires rednecks—although he may just be saying that to tease the readers of The New York Review of Books.
So it’s ungrateful of me to complain. But I have to say that Naipaul makes the South just the teeniest bit—well, boring. And that’s not right, because boring is one thing the South has never been and, please God, never will be.
I’m reminded of another pleasant book called Journeys Through the South, written by a journalist named Fred Powledge back about 1977. Powledge had spent part of the 60’s pinned down by sniper fire at the University of Mississippi while covering the matriculation of James Meredith, so he was struck by how much Old Dixie had changed. In 1977 he traveled all over and nobody shot at him, even though he did have a beard. (One of my all-time favorite bumper stickers, from South Carolina, says “Don’t Shoot, I’m a Local Hippie.” Think about that.)
Anyway, Powledge’s book was upbeat, reflecting the South’s mood in those early days of the Carter administration, when the idea of the “Sunbelt” had just begun to catch on and people were talking seriously about silly ideas like how the nation’s future lay in the South. Roy Blount Jr. reviewed Powledge’s book for The New York Times and gave it pretty good marks, complaining only that the picture it painted was so relentlessly normal. Blount said something like, “I kept wishing Harry Crews would run by with a handful of snakes.”
For those who don’t know him, Crews is one of the foremost latter-day practitioners of the Southern grotesque, my candidate for successor to Erskine Caldwell, and author of a book of essays with the great title Blood and Grits, which I wish I’d thought of first. And Roy Blount’s Crackers is, to my mind, one of the funniest and truest books ever written about Our People.
But this is turning into a bibliographical essay. Let me get back to the point, which is that the South is an odd place, and any portrait that implies it isn’t, lies.
Both Powledge and Naipaul did run into typically weird Southern stuff, but each chose to downplay it—for different reasons, I suspect. Powledge ran across Alvis Lassiter drying a parachute in his front yard, for instance. Now, Fred grew up in Raleigh, so he knew why Lassiter kept a parachute around (“he just liked the way it looked,” that’s all). In other circumstances he might have paused to savor that; in his book, though, he quickly passes over the subject, presumably because dwelling on it would interfere with the “South Rejoins Union” story he’s trying to tell.
When Naipaul found himself being driven around Mississippi by a black man in a hair net, with shaving cream on his face, on the other hand, it was all he could do to maintain his sang froid. He doesn’t have the advantage of a Southern upbringing to help him just accept the fact that folks have their reasons. Naipaul’s a good sport, but he seems to find the episode rather sinister. Apparently he likes to know what’s going on, and his book moves right along to characters more easily understood.
My point is that the odd happens all the time in the South, and a true portrait would not only report it, but marvel at it, revel in it. Any picture of the South in the late 20th century, that is, should save a prominent place for the likes of the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz.
That’s all wind-up. Here’s the pitch. I’ve had occasion before to mention the Reverend Billy in these letters. He’s a Raleigh boy, a former specialeducation teacher turned boogiewoogie piano player, 6’4″ with a spiky punk haircut, tattoos on most of his visible parts, and a silver earring in the form of a chain saw. He writes his own music, which he describes as “middle of the rude,” or “queasy listening.” His songs have titles like “Mennonite Surf Party” and “Your Greens Give Me the Blues”; his lyrics run to “Stick out your can / ‘Cause here comes the garbage man.” His first album, Salvation Through Polyester, went nowhere at all, but his second, Deep-Fried and Sanctified (just out), got reviewed in People magazine and may be a comer.
I caught the Reverend’s act one evening last winter at our university’s Student Union, and wrote an appreciative review for a regional magazine. He called me up to thank me.
“Wanta be in show business?” he asked.
Are you kidding? Is a wild Indian Catholic? Does the Pope—Yes!
Turns out the Reverend’s record company was flying a film crew into Raleigh from Los Angeles to make a music-video of “Teenie Weenie Meanie,” a love song addressed to—uh, well, to a lady wrestler. A midget lady wrestler. Billy assured me that the video would be “tasteful.”
So, on the appointed evening in March, my buddy Fetzer and I drove to Raleigh. We found the Reverend outside the big, cave-like nightclub where the filming was to take place, eating fried chicken and turnip greens off a styrofoam plate and surrounded by his entourage, which that evening included four members of a motorcycle gang. In full colors. Ugly boys.
While we were waiting for the “shoot” (as we show business folk call it), Fetzer and I slipped across the street to grab a sandwich, accompanied by a country-music singer named Pinky Wyoming, who was also there for a shot at glory. Pinky is a large woman, with a long blond wig, a pink cowboy hat, and white boots. Fetzer had purchased his entire wardrobe that afternoon for $9.00 at the Abundant Life Thrift Shop. (I liked his pointy shoes best.) I’d come from work, so I was relatively staid in khakis and boots, although I was wearing an orange cap that said “Elvis—Memphis Loves You,” with a picture of the King in profile.
“Are y’all in a play?” asked the State U. student working the counter.
“Whaddaya mean, ‘play’?” Fetzer demanded. “Somethin’ funny about the way I look?”
The poor kid apologized.
“Didja ask them Hell’s Angels if they was in a play?” Fetzer grumbled, as he walked off with his sandwich.
The kid watched us warily, all the way out.
Back across the street, Billy introduced us to his costar. Diamond Lil, three feet of dynamite with a blond Mohawk haircut, and to her friend and mentor, the Fabulous Moolah. Moolah (whose real name is Lillian) is a personable, 50-ish blonde who was for many years World Champion and now runs a school for lady wrestlers in Columbia, South Carolina. We chatted for a while, then went inside where a makeshift ring had been set up.
The Los Angeles film crew, about a dozen of them, were making mysterious chalk marks on the floor and moving lights and cameras around, looking professionally blase and ready to get back to the Sir Walter Inn and a few lines of coke or something. The scene they were filming that night was the wrestling match at which the singer, Billy, first spies his lady-love, the “Teenie Weenie Meanie,” played by Diamond Lil. (The love scenes were filmed the next day at a trailer park in Apex, North Carolina. I had to be at work, alas.) My brief moment in the spotlight came when the Reverend and the motorcycle guys and their women and a baby named—well, it sounded like “Redemption” and maybe it was—when these folk and Fetzer and Pinky and I and assorted other hangers-on watched Moolah and Lil go through some choreographed wrestling moves while we hollered “Kill her! Kill her!” and waved empty beer cups around.
Look for it on MTV. I’m the one in the orange Elvis cap, next to the baby. I almost hate to say it, but there’s a sense in which that’s what the South is all about in 1989. Whatever else it may be, it’s not boring.