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It's a Dog's Life : Books: After a career of ups and downs, Willie Morris was ready for fun. So he turned to memories of his canine pal from childhood.

June 29, 1995|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ol' Willie Morris. Now there's a yarn for you.

He gets himself a life that resembles a very large roller coaster. Then, after all those ups and downs, he moves back to Mississippi, where he belongs.

And then, for his latest adventure, he proceeds to sit down and write a tribute to his dog Skip, dead and gone these 40 years.

Now, writing a tribute to a dead dog can be dangerous business, especially for someone who depends on book sales to eat. But for Willie Morris, author, essayist, prankster and late-night raconteur, it was as fun as could be.

Morris, 60, was having some more fun the other day, all rumpled and smoking a cigarette and sipping on a little of this and a little of that at lunch.

And every now and then, the waitress would come by and he'd get a glimmer in his eye and say things like, "We sure don't have places like this in Mississippi," in his thick Delta accent.

And the waitress of this fancy Santa Monica eatery would look at him a little queerly, as if trying to decipher whether Morris was putting her on or what.

"We don't have much wine in Mississippi either," he told her, fully enjoying both his joke and his wine.

Willie Morris is having a fine old time of it these days in Mississippi, having rid himself of a devil or two from the past, having made peace with himself.

And so it was that he was traveling the country recently, doing book signings and talk shows and the like, peddling this little book that he did for the pure pleasure of it. He's called it "My Dog Skip" (Random House), a charming reminiscence about life in a much simpler time in rural Yazoo City, Miss.

And the damnedest thing has been happening. People have been asking Morris to dedicate the book to their dogs, both alive and dead.

"This one woman asked me if I would sign the book to Cindy," Morris recounted. "So I said, 'Are you Cindy?' And she said, 'No, Cindy is my cocker spaniel.' I've been signing books to dogs that are alive and dogs that are in dog heaven. I've even been signing them to cats."

*

Willie Morris decided he wanted to write about ol' Skip after he completed what he described as "the most difficult book I ever had to write"--"New York Days," about his four-year stint as editor of Harper's magazine.

That book dealt with one of the most turbulent times in the history of the magazine, with Morris, appointed editor in 1967 at the baby-faced age of 32, at the helm.

He succeeded in turning Harper's on its ear--recruiting such stars as William Styron and Norman Mailer, David Halberstam and Larry L. King to work their magic on the staid old publication.

"You couldn't wait to get to work," Halberstam said. "It was like a party that went on all day and night, only it was work. It was wildly exciting."

At the same time, Morris hobnobbed with the rich and the powerful, saw his marriage unravel and made blood enemies with the money people at Harper's, who thought he was spending too much and pulling in a profit margin that was very much on the thin side.

"Who are you writing this magazine for?" one board member asked. "A bunch of hippies?"

Morris, outraged, stormed out.

He retreated to the eastern end of Long Island, nursing his wounds and hitting the sauce. From being the toast of Elaine's, he became a disappearing act, but not of his own choosing. And finally, the worst thing happened.

"The phone stopped ringing."

*

In the nine years he lived on Long Island, his production was spotty--a novel called "The Last of the Southern Girls" and a memoir about author James Jones.

In 1979, Morris had occasion to travel south again, discovering in the process that Mississippi was calling him back. His people--his family--were dying and he was not there for them. And there was a good feeling about the place, a return to simplicity and muggy afternoons, soft accents and slow-moving streams.

"For some writers, it is important to live in proximity of the main landmarks of one's own past," he said.

The following year, Morris returned for good, becoming the writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, the place where the shadow of William Faulkner still looms large. There, he taught writing and wrote some himself, this time a book about an intensely recruited high school halfback named Marcus Dupree that served as a way of examining racial changes in the Deep South.

"Coming back was like being reborn for Willie," said his friend Larry Wells, co-owner of Oxford's Yoknapatawpha Press. "What he wanted to write about was here."

Halberstam agreed: "There were wounds and by going home he was back with people who loved him and understood him better."

Morris brought his writer friends south, giving his students the kind of exposure to big names that normally would have been impossible. He eventually came to occupy the largest lecture hall at Ole Miss. Meanwhile, he had a whole new audience for his practical jokes and telephone impersonations that he had been famous for in New York. Wells described him as "like Hamlet one moment and Falstaff the next."

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