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Mama's Big Boy Walks Out : TUPELO NIGHTS by John Ed Bradley (Atlantic Monthly Press: $17.95; 239 pp.)

July 10, 1988|Carter Coleman | Coleman grew up in Baton Rouge, La. He reviews regularly for the Atlanta Constitution and has written for Life, Esquire, Sports Illustrated and other magazines

So " 'You talk about football and what a big hero you were. You tell me you were such a big man out there. Why can't you be a big man out here? You're a mama's boy, Johnny.' " Charged by his lover two-thirds of the way through the novel, the accusation cuts to the core of Johnny's character. An all-American LSU linebacker, John Girlie forsook a pro career, returned to the stagnant confines of Old Field, La., all on behalf of his mother. "Tupelo Nights" is the coming-of-age story of a mama's boy.

The atmosphere is baleful, a sort of Southern Gothic reminiscent of Truman Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms." A graveyard beneath tupelo trees is a predominant backdrop. There, Johnny visits his oldest pal, Charlie, an ex-seminarian who abuses whiskey and weed while cutting out graves with a backhoe. Charlie is an archetypal angry, aimless young man. Once he tells Johnny, " 'I was thinking about how I just don't know anymore. Then I started thinking that I never really did know . . . I don't even know what I don't know. That's how confused I am.' " It is also in the cemetery that Johnny falls in love from afar; nightly he watches the beautiful red-haired Emma come to the unmarked grave of her infant son.

In an earnest, engaging voice, Johnny recounts his first year out of college, at times recollecting pivotal scenes of his childhood: the birthday when his grandfather took him to a brothel; the day further back when his father, a handsome lawyer, disappeared; the night his mother burned all his father's belongings. . . . His intense devotion to his mother runs back to his ninth year when she told him, " 'You're the man, you're the boss around here now, John.' "

Now, with her second son Sam vowing from Baton Rouge never to return home, even changing his name, John is all she has left. The whole town has heard of his nocturnal visits to St. Jude, and Janie Girlie, of course, abhors the idea of Emma--generating a crescendo of tension: Will Johnny inform his mother of what has grown into a passionate affair with the lonely, older beauty?

The tension snaps with Janie's last-ditch efforts to hold on to her son. Trying to make herself more attractive, she embarks on a long fast, refusing to leave her room. Worried, Johnny tries to force-feed her homemade ice cream and ends up entangled on her bed: "Her arms were strong around me. I felt the wetness of her lips on the side of my face, the sticky cream on my beard. There was a terrible purple brightness in the room. I felt her legs move under mine. She touched me. When I pushed her hand away she touched me again. She was laughing now, and someone on the television was laughing. First I hit her with a tight fist, then with the back of my hand. . . . 'It's my life,' I said. 'It's mine. It's my life. And I'm not going to let you kill it.' " Later she burns all of his possessions.

Finally free of his mother, you expect him to leave Old Field with Emma, but at the last moment, he changes his mind: "What was it that stopped me and kept me from telling her to hurry along, to run and get her things, it was time to go?" The question is never answered. The postscript, tacked on the end of the novel, reveals only that he left Old Field alone, never to return. "Tupelo Nights" is a convincing tale of a young man torn between the lure of first love and the duty toward his bereft mother. The churchyard, the marsh, the farms and Cajun dives are painted with almost photorealistic clarity. The supporting cast of Old Field folk are all vividly portrayed. Although Emma remains something of a cipher, beyond the complete comprehension of her 23-year-old lover, Johnny's inner life is evoked with verity. Some moments--such as when he masturbates in the cemetery while longing for Emma--are excruciatingly honest.

It is refreshing to read a first novel with a reflective hero rather than a numb denizen of a "Less Than Zero." The notion that setting shapes character, a tenet of the Fugitive and Agrarian literary movements, has deep roots in the Southern psyche. Old Field itself seems responsible for the ethical bent of its native son. Johnny has not set out on a search for sensual gratification like so many of his fictional contemporaries; instead he grasps for small-town virtues.

In the opening pages, he says that he came home to make everything "right and simple"--a refrain that is echoed throughout the book. In the postscript, he tells of a recurring dream in which he announces to his mother, father, brother, and Emma, all the souls he has lost, " 'I just want to make everything right and simple.' " Impossible, they reply. But it is a dream that he will always cherish, a vision of what could never be.

John Ed Bradley, the author, was himself an all-star at Louisiana State University. After hanging up his cleats, he went not to his hometown of Opelousas but north to work for the Washington Post, where his sports writing was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It is doubtful that "Tupelo Nights" will enjoy the same honor, yet it is a moving work, tender, heartfelt and as lonesome as the bayou on a misty night.

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