Friday, April 17, 2009

Tito Perdue, literary genius

Woke up this morning at 8:30 a.m. after staying up until 3 a.m. talking to my old friend Tito Perdue. The morning sun is streaming down on the lakefront here about 10 miles north of Wetumpka, Alabama. It's beautiful, although I thought the midnight stars were more beautiful.

We watched opera last night, and Tito reminded me how we met. I'd written a column for the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune which (humorously, I thought) explained why I couldn't stand the caterwauling of an operatic soprano. Tito, who was then living in Cave Spring, Ga., wrote a letter to the editor denouncing me as a philistine. This was the start of a long and eventful friendship. More after this operatic interlude featuring the Russian soprano Netrebko:

Among other things, I'm semi-responsible for Tito's "outing" as something other than a liberal. (Don't ever call him a "conservative"; he'll reply, "No, I'm a reactionary!") Tito's first two novels were published to critical acclaim and he looked to be well on his way to being the next Winston Groom (who is, in fact, a cousin of his). Critics thought his Faulkneresque style was "postmodern," and he was favorably reviewed in the New York Times, etc.

Then, after we met, I wrote a feature profile about Tito, describing his library full of classics, his enjoyment of Wagner, his admiration of Nietzsche, his general loathing of all things new or even recent. Among other things, he mentioned in the interview that, if there were ever to be a film made of his books, the only director he'd want would be Elia Kazan -- who, you may recall, "named names" for the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Tito thought the article was splendid, and copies of the article were distributed by his agent. At which point, the game was up. His book contract was cancelled and it was a couple of years before he published his next novel, which the New York Times didn't review. Difficult as is the life of a literary novelist in the Age of Illiteracy, imagine what it's like for Tito being marked as an antagonist of the liberal culture -- really, an antagonist of the entirety of contemporary society. And, doggone it, Elia Kazan is dead!

Tito is a fine storyteller and his first novel, Lee, is great, even if the critics agree. The book introduces the protagonist Lee Pefley, who is featured in his other novels. His second book, The New Austerities, was actually better, I thought. More recently, he's published a wonderful tale of Lee Pefley's romantic youth, The Sweet Scented Manuscript. This is a roman a clef of Tito's own wild experience at Ohio's Antioch College, where he met, wooed and married his wife Judy.

Their love affair was scandalous enough to get them both kicked out of school in 1957. They've now been married 51 years, and I think young readers -- who have zero idea of what the 1950s were really like, much less the kind of love that causes two kids to get married at 18 -- would get a thrill out of The Sweet Scented Manuscript. Of course, this postulates the hypothetical existence of young people who read literary novels for any reason other than being assigned to do so by their teachers. Sigh.

At any rate, I'm sitting barefoot in Tito's living room, which has a magnificent view of the lake. Last night, as we stood out on the deck underneath a star-filled sky, I said I wished my friends up in D.C. had any inkling of how wonderful Alabama is. This horrified Judy, who expressed the fear that such a revelation might result in an influx that would ruin the place.

So whatever you do, don't tell anyone that the nearest place to heaven on earth is 10 miles north of Wetumpka on Alabama Highway 111, just off County Road 23. Take a right turn at Martin's Bait & Tackle and keep going until you find the end of Muscadine Lane.

Of course, you'll never find the place. You probably won't even bother to try. And isn't that sad?


  1. Tell him to go write science fiction and/or fantasy. Hell, that's where all our lyric poets went, too.

  2. Heh. I'm an Alabamian who has worked for 30 years in a profession which brings me in contact with a great many other professionals who have been transferred to Alabama from many of the country's largest cities and most urbanized states. And I've often had occasion to speak with them about their experiences in Alabama vis a' vis their expectations upon learning they would be moving here. I suppose I've spoken with perhaps 200 of these professionals, men and women, about what they have found here.

    Without exception - I mean literally without exception - each and every person who had not already lived in Alabama or had close family members living in the state, were disappointed to learn they had been transferred to such a benighted, racist, backwoods hole as Alabama.

    But the same persons who were unhappy to be transferred to the state said that after they got here they were overjoyed when they learned the truth. Several completely changed their career and living plans just to stay in Alabama, and have even retired in their adopted home.

    They told me what surprised them most about Alabama. For the most part they knew about the natural beauty and the huge natural areas throughout the state. They loved the low cost of living which enabled them to pay only $300,000 or even less for houses which would have cost them seven figures in New Jersey, Washington, D.C. or California. They were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the schools and the commitment of the teachers. They were stunned to find extremely diverse populations, particularly in the professions, who lived in a tolerant and comfortable harmony which many said they had experienced nowhere else in the United States. In general they found they were surrounded by happy, polite, self-reliant, friendly and kind people.

    Yes, the never-ending display of photos and clips of firehoses, police dogs and smoldering church ruins has been the heavy price Alabama has paid for allowing racists to hold the reins of power until the mid-60's. But in a way it has worked to Alabama's great benefit, because we had to change, and did; but few outside the South know it.

    And that's actually okay with us. We saw what happened to Atlanta, which wanted so desperately to be just like the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast: they got their wish. Atlanta was a cautionary tale to us, and although we have a surprising number of manufacturing centers for perhaps a score of major multinationals such as Honda and Mercedes-Benz, we more or less have kept our business to ourselves.

    So I guess we shouldn't be taken aback when 40 years after the state began transforming itself, visitors are very pleasantly surprised when they spend some time with us. We think it's a pretty good deal.