A Divine Comedy 

Entering: James Wilcox's Tula Springs. Population: nuts.

Heavenly Days

By James Wilcox

Viking, 199 pp., $23.95

nya Magda-Louise (neÇ Vogelsanger) Jones, "Lou" for short, lives in Tula Springs, Louisiana, which is somewhere due north of New Orleans and somewhere due west of the Mississippi state line.

Lou is 54 years old, a Ph.D. in music theory, and a wife to Don, who is temporarily out of work and temporarily not living inside the same Soho-loftlike, faux-Cajun cottage (with skylight) as his beloved spouse. Lou is also the half-Jewish Episcopalian granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, and she's hoping to get a teaching job (tenure track but a lost cause?) at St. Jude Community College, but she's making three times the salary as a receptionist at WaistWatch, a Christian fundamentalist exercise emporium (home of the "TotalPackageMakeover") run by the town head-turner, Brother Moodie.

Lou is also a columnist ("Notes from Up and Down the Staff") for the North American Bassoon Society newsletter, but does she have the time? When she's not being politically correct to a fault and proudly liberal to the letter, she's busy putting her best foot forward and putting that same foot in her mouth. She is, in a word, semi-talented, halfway intelligent, but totally clueless -- to her own foolishness and the foolishness of every other Tula Springian. Among the others inside James Wilcox's comic Heavenly Days:

Maigrite, Lou's charmless immediate boss, who's not to be referred to as that "Mondrian" woman; Mr. Pickens, Maigrite's husband, who's having an affair with Burma Van Buren, who's married to an 81-year-old worth $31 million in lottery winnings; Grady, Lou's longtime best girlfriend, whose prominent father, Judge Morgen, gave Lou's father safe haven during World War II, when, as a German ex-seminarian, he escaped the Nazis after dissing the Nazis; Alpha, Lou's longtime maid and nemesis, who's inherited Don's parents' house from his dead mother, Maybelle; Mrs. Ompala, Alpha's "mother," a high-minded woman of the high-church variety, who lived in Mombasa then on a pecan farm in Houston, Mississippi; Grady's gay butler Bill, who's out of Yale, doesn't do dishes, but does write on spec for Inside Edition; and the lesbian couple, Molly (a U-Haul mechanic) and Grant (a librarian), who together help Lou move a loblolly-pine dresser belonging to Maigrite but holding Burma's panties, until a BB from Mr. Van Buren accidentally lands Lou in Tri-Parish Pentecostal General. And this isn't the half of it, only an introduction to faux-genteel Tula Springs.

Heavenly Days is Wilcox's first novel in five years. And lest you think this past master of Southern screwball (Modern Baptists, Sort of Rich, Plain and Simple) has lost his lightning wit and critical eye, rest easy. His latest is rife with the ridiculous and hard in its satirical attack. The style: take-no-prisoners. The method: compounded cross-purposes. The targets: Old and New South pretentions. The humor: smart as all get-out. Result: laugh riot. All of it made richer by lovable Lou Jones, a heroine of sorts in spite of herself and after all.

Welcome back, Mr. Wilcox. Your fans have been waiting. May Heavenly Days earn you more.

Dumb and Dumberer

It's that time again -- time to join the ACLU and ask that the feds please butt out of your business, the business of what you read. This year, Banned Books Week is September 20-27th, and the concern is Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which allows your government to investigate your reading habits even if you're under no investigation. And as the ACLU's proved every year for the past 22 years, this year's list of "challenged," restricted, or banned books by schools and libraries is dumber than ever. Number one (again): the Harry Potter series. John Steinbeck's East of Eden? "Ungodly and obscene," according to somebody in Alabama and not according to Oprah's Book Club, which has rocketed that title to number one on bestseller lists.

To protest the Patriot Act, local bookstores are getting into the act. At Burke's, you can drop off a can of food (by Saturday, September 20th) to go with the store's banned-book display, which is based on Andy Warhol's soup cans. Donations will go to the Memphis Food Bank. At Davis-Kidd, "celebrate the freedom to read" on Thursday, September 25th, from 6 to 7 p.m. with a program of readings co-sponsored by the ACLU of Tennessee.


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