Being There 

Spotlight Memphis, in fiction and fact.

In the short story that Corey Mesler read last week before an audience of well-wishers at his bookstore, Burke's, a Memphis poet by the name of Camel Jeremy Eros and his friend, writer Richard Brautigan, take a road trip tripped out on windowpane washed down with Stoli. They're headed for Woodstock (this being 1969), but they arrive nowhere near Saugerties. What a friend, though, they have in Jesus in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, because that's where they end up, and what they find there is not exactly a gathering of the tribes. What it is, after some stoner talk and sanctification, is a three-day festival of peace, love, and that old-time religion in the form of a gospel jubilee, praise the Lord. Minds blown, years later, the two travelers still swear that what they heard at that festival was Hendrix doing the National Anthem (backed by a church organ) and what they'd seen was God. End of story.

No end, however, to the memories -- fictionalized, poeticized -- of Memphis at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in Mesler's We Are Billion Year Old Carbon: A Tribal-Love-Rock-Novel Set in the Sixties on an Outpost Planet Called Memphis (Livingston Press). How far out? Very, according to Mesler's wild and woolly tales of the Bitter Lemon coffee house, smoked banana skins, jam bands at the Overton Park Shell, and wigged-out characters. How wiggeded out, sexed up, artistically inclined, politically of a mind, or just plain bonkers? Very, but as Mesler also reminded the audience at Burke's that night, if you were alive in the '60s and remember the '60s, you weren't "there" in the '60s.

Mesler was and wasn't: He was too young to participate but old enough to be inspired, apparently permanently and in his own write:

"This crazy-quilt novel's genesis, its Edenic genesis," Mesler said in an e-mail, "stems from my belief that the 1960s entered my bloodstream, setting up its gypsy camp, leaving me a hippie for life. That -- coupled with a cockeyed, anti-research method of employing history -- fashioned the barmy impulses behind these tales."

"Crazy quilt" is right. "Hippie for life" I wouldn't know. I grew up in the '60s. I remember the '60s. I wasn't "there."

But author/comedian Jonathan Ames was -- there in Memphis the night Tyson fought Lewis in 2002. After escaping The Pyramid, however, Ames got stuck trying to climb a chain-link fence and durn near castrated himself. Lucky then that he met with a Memphian to take his mind off things: "some kind of southern homeless man," Ames writes in an essay inside I Love You More Than You Know (new in paperback from Black Cat), "face contorted and weird from retardation, but the eyes behind the thick glasses were kind and gentle -- the disposition of all the Memphians I had met."

That's a compliment to the city, I think. Elsewhere Ames ain't so kind and gentle: the Mississippi, "the world's largest septic line"; Memphis, "where so much of lurid America seems to have ... washed up on the banks"; deserted Main Street (2:30 p.m.), "a place stuck in time"; a swingers' club (1:15 a.m.), "unattractive white people in their fifties"; Main Street (4 a.m.), "I've never seen so many prostitutes in my life."

This is not Memphis according to the Chamber. But it's Memphis according to an author who needlessly adds that his "sporadic explosive episodes of irritable bowel syndrome ... destroy toilets and soil the back of my shirttails wherever I go."

Good idea, Mr. Ames. Go and good riddance.

N.B.: Interested in hearing a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, essayist, and authority on children's literature? Go see Alison Lurie read from her works at the U of M's FedEx Institute of Technology at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 26th. For more info, call 678-3550.



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