Lewis Nordan, Writer Who Spun Lyrical Tales, Dies at 72
Lewis Nordan ('63), a Mississippi-born writer whose fiction conjures a dreamlike world that straddles the whisker-thin margin between a legend and a lie, but whose best-known novel was based on a historical murder of national import, died on Friday in Cleveland. He was 72. The cause was complications of pneumonia, his wife, Alicia, said. Mr. Nordan, who did not begin writing until he was in his mid-30s and did not publish his first book until he was in his mid-40s, was the author of four novels, three volumes of short stories and a memoir, "Boy With Loaded Gun" (2000) .
Though he was also known as a teacher of writing - before his retirement in 2005, he had taught for more than two decades at the University of Pittsburgh - his work attracted critical praise and a cult following.
Mr. Nordan's fiction is characterized by a tall-tale outrageousness that shades seamlessly into magic realism (llamas sing, the dead can share narrative responsibilities, a wayward elephant is hanged), along with recurring characters and places, in particular the fictional Delta town of Arrow Catcher, Miss.
The town is at the center of his first book, the story collection "Welcome to the Arrow-Catcher Fair." Published in 1983, it displays Mr. Nordan's characteristic lyric vernacular and his penchant for narrative that is swampy brew of sexual yearning, death, guilt and grotesquerie.
When one reads Mr. Nordan's work - his memoir, by his own account, included - it can be difficult to tell the real from the fantastic, and that is precisely his point. Throughout his writing (and here too his memoir is no exception) dark humor veils, though only just, a layer of pervasive pain.
His best-known book is the 1993 novel "Wolf Whistle," based on the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. It concerns a black teenager, who, like Till, is murdered by Southern whites for allegedly making a suggestive remark to a local white woman.
The novel explores the nexus of race, sex and violence through a many-faceted narration. As it unfolds, it even includes the point of view of the dead youth himself: "The dead boy saw the world as if his seeing were accompanied by an eternal music, as living boys, still sleeping, unaware, in their safe beds, might hear singing from unexpected throats one morning when they wake up, the wind in a willow shade, bream bedding in the shallows of a lake, a cottonmouth hissing on a limb, the hymning of beehives, of a bird's nest, the bray of the ice-man's mule, the cry of herons or mermaids in the swamp, and rain across wide water."
Lewis Alonzo Nordan, familiarly known as Buddy, was born on Aug. 23, 1939, in Forest, Miss., and reared in Itta Bena, Miss. His father, a letter carrier, died when Lewis was 18 months old, and he was reared by his mother, a schoolteacher, and his stepfather, a housepainter.
Till's murder, in Money, Miss., less than 20 miles from Itta Bena, would haunt Mr. Nordan all his life.
"I knew the murderers," he told National Public Radio in 1993. (The two white men accused of killing Till, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury.) He continued: "But I didn't know that a little white boy growing up in the South who was in some ways even implicated in the guilt just by my whiteness had the right to write such a story, and so I repressed it, I kept it in my heart and in my memory for all these 38 years since the event, but I was obsessed with it."
Mr. Nordan earned a bachelor's degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., followed by a master's degree from Mississippi State University and a Ph.D. from Auburn, where he wrote his dissertation on Shakespeare's dramatic poetry. He taught at the University of Arkansas and elsewhere before joining the Pittsburgh faculty.
His other books include the novel "Lightning Song" (1997), the story collection "Sugar Among the Freaks" (1996) and his memoir, in which, amid the sly hyperbole (the text to the contrary, his wife said, the young Mr. Nordan did not attempt to shoot his stepfather with a handgun ordered for that purpose), he writes candidly of his fight to overcome alcoholism and the deaths of two of his sons, one in infancy and the other, by suicide, at 20.
Mr. Nordan's first marriage, to Mary Mitman, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Alicia Blessing Nordan; a son, Lewis Eric, from his first marriage; two stepsons, Josh and Adam Conn; and six grandchildren.
Though interviewers often asked Mr. Nordan which aspects of his work were real and which were less so, he was quite reconciled to the uncertainty that his work seemed to entail.
"For a long time I thought I was somehow defective for not being able to tell the truth - the 'truth,' I should say - without changing it, amplifying it, or romanticizing it," he said in an interview with the reference work Contemporary Authors. "This seemed to be a flaw in my character. Now I think that it may be a flaw, but it is also a gift for which I am grateful."
Reprinted from The New York Times, April 16, 2012.