John Fergus Ryan -- 1930-2003 

He may last forever, after all.

This being a space where people are normally used to reading about politics, I'll start with a true story concerning politics and the late John Fergus Ryan. In 1954, the 23-year-old Ryan, an Army vet with a wife and baby, decided to have a go at what he might have called, in that peculiar Runyonesque Southern vernacular of his, the "politics game."

A scion of North Little Rock, Arkansas, Ryan became the all-purpose factotum for an obscure no-name candidate for governor of his native state. He set up shop one day in a rented room at the old Marion Hotel, a venerable Little Rock establishment which was, and had been for decades, the center of Arkansas politics. (It was later razed to make way for the Excelsior, a more modern hostelry where a politician by the name of Bill Clinton would get in trouble with one Paula Jones.)

Ryan -- known to his family as Jackie and to his wife Carla (then as now a looker) as Jack -- went to work. He put out word on the street that would-be officeholders should stop by the rented room at the Marion, make their campaign contributions, and sign up then and there for the state job they could expect to get when Ryan's man was elected. It was a methodology which cut out all the frills and differed from the actual patronage policies then in place only by being unvarnished and direct.

Naturally, the main state newspaper, the old Arkansas Gazette, got wind of the scheme and sent a reporter over to pose as a job-seeker. The ringer would write up an account that made the paper's front page the next day and ended Jack Ryan's career as a political mover and shaker. Anybody looking at the old yellowed clip decades later would be forced to conclude two things: that John Fergus Ryan, the author, could have written it better; and that the details of the story were the sort that belonged to Ryan's own patented genre of down-home Gothic.

The latter point is key: John Fergus Ryan, one of those writers unique enough to have invented a style, was in his own way a realist. He wrote some nonfiction too, mainly for Esquire, but he was at heart a fiction writer, and his outlandish plots and cartoonish characters reflected his sense of the way things really were.

He was a pro. There was method and exactness in the way he worked -- in a cramped and windowless converted pantry space smack dab in the middle of his modest Midtown house by the campus of Rhodes College. Back in the '70s, when I used to teach creative writing at Memphis State University, I used as one of my basic texts a weighty compilation of materials -- donated by Ryan -- that started as a series of random notes: the kind of isolated quotes, details, and plot sketches that originate in a writer's notebook as elements in search of a story.

Another set of pages showed those notes as they went through a process of development, embellishment, and elaboration into the first draft of a story. Then a second draft. A third and even a fourth, all Xeroxed and replete with marginal notes and handwritten line changes. Then the final product -- the story, titled "The Bazemore Gala," as published in Evergreen Review, a leading periodical of the time.

Over and over, that series of progressions from beginning to middle to end did the trick and actually got student writers to tackle what might otherwise have seemed the implausible task of translating random thoughts and aperçus into fiction. It was a kind of how-to manual for them, and if you ask, say, Arthur Flowers, the distinguished African-American author of several novels by now, how he got started, he would probably cite that student exercise of 30 years ago as key to his development.

Hell, I know he would. Flowers is one of several flourishing writers out there in the world whom I was lucky enough to help incubate, and he is on record in several interviews as naming that class as his literary point of origin. He started keeping a notebook there, and I well remember his first complete effort, a Ryanesque piece that freely combined the comic, the grotesque, and the nitty-gritty into a neo-Faustian saga of otherworldly muckers called "The Devil's Hell of a Plan." His literary model would have been -- in fact, was -- pleased.

Once he crossed the river into Memphis, where he earned his daily bread as, first, a social worker and later as a probation officer, Jack Ryan became simply John Ryan, the name he was known by to most of his friends. (It is also these days well known as the name of his son, namesake, and kindred spirit, the Memphis artist John B. Ryan, whose two siblings, Carla and Andy, round out what is a remarkably good-natured and bright-edged clan.) The "Fergus" part, though his by birth and certainly suggestive of the pagan Gaelic elements of his psyche, was added on for literary purposes because the classic American authors he had studied in school all had three names and he meant, at some point, to join their company. He very well may.

By the time of his death last week, of long-term complications from diabetes and Parkinson's disease, the ailments that had made his once Falstaffian physique unwontedly frail, John Ryan had compiled a body of work that had been published and read and admired on virtually all the continents of planet Earth. Even before he attracted the attention of American critics and readers, he had been taken up by the British periodical press, where his affinities with writers like the poet A.E. Housman and the belles-lettrist P.G. Wodehouse did not go unnoticed.

A spate of published stories would be followed in the past couple of decades by three well-received novels -- The Redneck Bride, The Little Brothers of St. Mortimer, and Watching. Ryan also did a play or two (one I remember concerned a patient at a mental hospital who ended up taking over the institution and running it -- as good a metaphor as any for the circumstances to be observed during Ryan's life and times). And there were screenplays by others. Billy Bob Thornton, the actor/writer/director from Ryan's native Arkansas, announced plans to produce a version of The Redneck Bride, and another entrepreneur actually did make a movie in 1999 based on Little Brothers. Called The White River Kid, it starred Bob Hoskins, Antonio Banderas, and Randy Travis, and, though for various reasons it never got released in theaters, it is available on DVD.

That John Ryan had gifts as an artist and that he leaves behind a legacy of literary achievement are both givens. Those who knew him, though, will most remember him not primarily for his tropes but for his friendship. It is ironic that Ryan liked to see himself characterized by his wry and often-quoted aphorism "People are no damn good." The fact is, as a person he was damn good. Let me count some of the ways.

He was the kind of guy who, when he heard you were moving house, would come over to lend a hand. He did so for me when, as a Gazette reporter and newlywed, I settled into a Little Rock apartment in 1967. He was there moving furniture and yanking doors off their hinges to create the illusion -- and the reality -- of more space. (It is no accident that so many people remember him as having been a "bear" of a man.) He was the friend who lent me his typewriter when I rushed back to hometown Memphis after hearing the news of Dr. Martin Luther King's death in 1968 and discovered I'd left my own machine behind.

It was that vintage instrument on which I wrote an account that, illustrated with classic photographs from another master, Ernest Withers, would appear 25 years later in a special King commemorative issue of Memphis magazine. Never did I feel myself so honored by multiple associations.

I went to the very moving memorial service at the Church on the River in the company of several members of my immediate family Monday and heard a number of graceful tributes, including one that made bold to describe Ryan -- a cynic and hard-boiled religious skeptic, to say the least -- as having been akin, in the warmth of his heart and in the nature of his own special ministry, to Jesus himself. To that I could say amen.

With me Monday was my oldest son Marcus, who almost three decades ago was in a Memphis hospital undergoing exploratory surgery that turned up a dreadful diagnosis and an even more dreadful -- and immediate -- prognosis. Keeping the vigil along with me in a waiting room had been John Ryan, and he was there when Marcus' mother and I got the news, helping to cushion the shock. He was always available in the months that followed, in which treatment and convalescence were followed by a wholly unexpected recovery for which the term "grace of God" is the only proper signifier, and I could not help reflecting this week that Ryan's goodwill had been among the elements that accompanied that miracle.

I also could not help reflecting that Ryan, who had been consigned to years of frailty by his own illnesses, was deserving of his own miracle. What he had instead was the next best thing, an attitude that -- born of his own incorrigible hustler's optimism -- was literally one of never-say-die.

As he lay on his deathbed, semi-comatose, he was still thinking ahead, according to his family, still trying to figure the angles and asking about the mail, still waiting for a publisher or filmmaker here or abroad to nibble at one of his overtures, still hoping to get news that he had received one of those whopping "genius" grants from the MacArthur Foundation that he thought, not without reason, he was entitled to.

And he was still able to stay in touch with things and to keep his hand in, even very late in the game. Once, last week or so, lying abed and seemingly unconscious, he heard family members and friends grouped around him trying to recall the punchline to a joke. Struggling to lift his head, he supplied the missing phrase:

"What's time to a pig?" he said.

Next question: What's time to a legend?


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