If you put an average Barry Hannah story in the ring next to one by Lewis Nordan, I could see Nordan winning in the second. After you get by that first brilliant, semi-decipherable Hannah paragraph and the Hannah story begins to lose air or just dies in agony there on page two. But the thing is, Lewis Nordan didn't write any average stories. How could he when his Mississippi—his one great love affair—was a drunk, deceived midget that had just lost a beauty contest?
The grotesque lives in Nordan's stories—it bubbles up out of the swamps and sings in the summer grass and knocks against the clapboard; it is everywhere— but it may be more of a metaphor for something Nordan was trying to put his finger on in the thirty or so stories of Music of the Swamp and Sugar Among the Freaks (both put out by Algonquin Press under Shanon Ravenel.) It was Nordan's life's work, getting his love of that mysterious and doomed place across to us—a place where bands of baptizing eunuchs get lost in the rain, quadriplegics having their asses wiped pity their attendants, and, yes, families of midgets are invited for inedible spaghetti dinners, and leave thinking the joke was on them.
But Nordan's most laden image comes towards the end of the story Sugar Among the Chickens, where Sugar Mecklin, who's been trying in futility to reel in a red-eyed barnyard rooster with a Zebco fishing rod, sees the beast land on his head and dig in with his claws while his parents look on.
Here is Nordan:
They were proud of me. I knew they were. They were frightened also but pride was mainly what I saw in their faces as I kept them from helping me. They believed that my life would not be ruined. They believed that a man who has worn a chicken on his head—and worn it proudly, as I was beginning to do—would never be a fool to geography or marriage or alcohol.
It's some of the saddest love poetry I've ever read.
Which is not to say that Nordan won't have you laughing tears. Sentence for sentence, the only competition there is the other Buddy—Charles Portis.