Book Review: Lewis Nordan's MUSIC OF THE SWAMP

Lewis Nordan, Music of the Swamp, Algonquin Books, 191 pages, $15.95. Publication date: Sept. 15, 1991.

Music serves as both a distraction from and an enhancer of life. In the car, we turn on our radio to balance out the monotony of driving. Soft music during relaxation blocks out disturbing sounds. In a wedding, on a dance floor, or at the movies, well-coordinated music carries us to the height of emotion.

The lovely melodies of Lewis Nordan's Music of the Swamp work miracles of distraction and enhancement as real, as vibrant and as potent as those played in our car, in a wedding or in a movie.


Nordan's language sings with colorful imagery and captivating symbolism; his characters come alive with witty and wonderful observations and, like Mr. Raney, with familiar habits which Nordan turns into charming peculiarities:

"Mr. Raney was the last man in Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, who could spit into a brass spittoon from a long distance. He did this now. Ptooey! Pting! He did this as a way of thinking things out. Or maybe only to make a joke, nobody knew which. Ptooey! Pting!"


Sugar Mecklin, the main character of the three short stories in Nordan's collection, uses music, real and imagined, to make life's mistakes seem like unexpected pleasures.

Poverty, abuse, disappointment, and especially death, are all softened and made manageable with song and musical points of view.

"The world was not the way Sugar Mecklin wanted it to be, but he had to admit, this particular day had turned out even better than he had expected when he woke up to the sound of mice and Elvis Presley and the voice of a barebreasted woman singing into a black mirror."


Sugar Mecklin's world is the Mississippi Delta, where Nordan himself grew up, and in Music of the Swamp he spends the summers of his tenth, eleventh and twelfth years discovering the vast, but sometimes minute, difference between fantasy and reality.


Sugar needs fantasy because reality is unpleasant at best and, at worst, unbearable. His father is drunk and unlucky and taken to listening to suicide music. He spends three summers in a row turning up dead bodies. His white trash friends and acquaintances have rats swimming in their rain-flooded basement and face abusive and negligent parents who make Sugar's own father seem like a peach.

But from mermaids to Baptisms to owls circling overhead, Sugar's fantasies share a common, healing element: music. In Sugar's words:

"I said--and even as I invented this I believed it--I said that in the foreign-language music of her song my ears and my heart opened up to a world larger and more generous than the world of my parents and our geography."

Lewis Nordan's stories do the same thing for his readers. He sings southern songs, the songs of the Mississippi Delta, in Music of the Swamp. But more importantly, he opens up new worlds for the reader, worlds that hum the tune of universal and urgent themes.

Copyright Dineane Whitaker 2008 - Please do not copy and paste this article, but feel free to post a link using this url:

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