Notes from the Mr. Peanut Tour — Part I

Post­ing this from Nashville, where I’ve just returned home after three weeks of on-and-off tour­ing. It’s been a thrill, meet­ing read­ers, inde­pen­dent book­sellers, and hit­ting the road, falling in love with the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, dri­ving, think­ing, and read­ing to audi­ences. Things kicked off here on June 22, the day of Mr. Peanut’s pub­li­ca­tion, though really they kicked off the week before with Jim Ridley’s great cover story about the novel in the Nashville Scene. That, in part, accounts for the great crowd we had at Davis Kidd, a gath­er­ing of friends, fam­ily, for­mer col­leagues (from the Scene and the Har­peth Hall School), stu­dents, par­ents of stu­dents, and other inter­ested par­ties. I read from the Shep­pard sec­tion, the scene when Mar­i­lyn first wakes up the day before her murder—it’s the reader’s first intro­duc­tion to her—then a brief snip­pet of the Has­troll sec­tion. There was a ter­rific party after­ward that my wife threw for me at Sun­set Grill—in all, a roar­ing success.

The next day I drove to Mem­phis, where I stayed at the Peabody Hotel and finally had a chance to see its leg­endary ducks make their daily migra­tion from the roof to the lobby, where they swim in the foun­tain until mak­ing their way back upstairs at 5. FYI, the ducks don’t wad­dle from the ele­va­tor to the foun­tain; they run. You have to be quick with the cam­era. Also took a nice run myself on Thurs­day morn­ing along the trol­ley tracks to the bridge to Mud Island, which spans half the Mis­sis­sippi, “that wide mus­cle of water” as a friend once described it, though it was so hot that morn­ing and dur­ing my stay that I was sur­prised the base­ball games at Red­bird sta­dium weren’t called off due to inclement weather. Before my read­ing at Memphis’s Davis Kidd store (they had a fan­tas­tic dis­play table set up for Mr. Peanut), I did morn­ing tele­vi­sion, News Chan­nel 3’s Live at 9 show, which was a ball, as well as a fan­tas­tic inter­view on Book­talk, broad­cast on Mem­phis 89.3 WYPL-FM and hosted by Stephen Usery. The man is a local trea­sure and a gift to the book world. His ques­tions made for an incred­i­ble con­ver­sa­tion and his com­mand of the book was so com­plete that it made for the kind of in-depth spon­tane­ity most talk shows utterly lack, not to men­tion that he has one of those voices you can’t shake, per­fect for radio because it seems a uni­verse away and impos­si­bly near at the same time. That night at Davis Kidd, I read the same sec­tion as I had in Nashville, and later, rather haunt­ingly, a woman from the audi­ence came up to me after­ward and told me that I’d “writ­ten her life.”

That Sun­day, Scott Turow’s piece came out on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, along with a Q & A in Paper Cuts, the paper’s book blog. Michiko Kaku­tani had reviewed the novel the pre­vi­ous Tues­day, and so I was flooded with emails, tweets, and Face­book posts from all over the coun­try, hear­ing from friends I hadn’t com­mu­ni­cated with in decades—even a guy I wres­tled as a sopho­more. It was all utterly sur­real, one of those moments when you feel the book is some­thing that, oddly, no longer belongs to you, the clos­est expe­ri­ence, I imag­ine, a man can get to giv­ing birth—which ain’t close, mind.

Onward Mon­day evening to Blytheville, Arkansas, to That Book­store in Blytheville, 70 miles north of Mem­phis, a fount of cul­ture in the heart of a sleepy lit­tle town, run by the leg­endary Mary Gay Ship­ley, who has been to both the Clin­ton and Bush II White Houses to be hon­ored for her con­tri­bu­tions to lit­er­acy. We had a great din­ner before­hand (killer chicken salad, plus peanut but­ter cake and peanut M & Ms). I signed the store’s annual chair, talked with Mary Gay’s hus­band about Karl Marlantes’s Mat­ter­horn (he’s a big fan and a Viet­nam vet­eran him­self), read sit­ting in a rock­ing chair, and was off the next morn­ing to Oxford, MS.

I’d been to Square Books once before, many years ago, and then as now, I was in awe of the place. You see the pic­tures of the writ­ers who’ve passed through on the walls,you sit in any of the store’s nooks, run­ning your fin­gers along the spines of books you’ve read or haven’t yet and you feel, in its well-furnished rooms, that par­tic­u­lar brand of anxiety—a nag­ging feel­ing of time pass­ing and time com­pressed in these pages that reminds you of all the things you want to write before you die—coupled with the hap­pi­est rev­er­ence for all the great work you’re sur­rounded by. I had lunch at Ajax with Richard Howorth, Off Square’s owner (as well as Oxford’s for­mer mayor), and who is, rightly, a leg­end in his own right. Also, ate a killer shrimp Po boy and kick­ass turnip greens.

Richard wrote about the read­ing I did that night on the store’s blog, which took place at Off Square Books, a block down from the main store. I’d got­ten bored of read­ing the Mar­i­lyn scene, so I decided on the long move­ment in the Shep­pard sec­tion that describes his first meet­ing with his long-time mis­tress, Susan Hayes, and ends with them hav­ing sex in Sheppard’s MG—a rous­ing bit of busi­ness. The high point for me, how­ever, came dur­ing the Q & A, when a woman asked what my wife thought of the book. Unbe­knownst to her, Beth was stand­ing in the back and answered the ques­tion her­self, and the woman seemed per­plexed by Beth’s pride in the book. That ques­tion, by the way, has been asked more than any other all tour, and I find it inter­est­ing that it’s asked so often because it reflects, I think, a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing about how fic­tion is cre­ated, not to men­tion its func­tion. Kafka, for instance, knew noth­ing about being a bug, but he wrote con­vinc­ingly about iso­la­tion, just as Nabokov—no pedophile he—wrote so achingly about obses­sion. Mr. Peanut’s hon­est look at how mar­riages can descend into dark­ness is no more unflinch­ing than its aware­ness of the oppor­tu­ni­ties for redemp­tion and renewal in any rela­tion­ship. It’s a book that argues for wake­ful­ness. But enough of that. Actress Joey Lau­ren Adams was in atten­dance, she ate din­ner with us later at TK, and since see­ing Chas­ing Amy many years ago, I have remained totally smit­ten, so that was a thrill.

Made for Jack­son, MS, next to read at Lemuria book­store, owned by Joe Hick­man. It’s an amaz­ing place, the store itself is incred­i­ble and the staff is great (love me some Zita!) with a build­ing adja­cent to it where they not only hold events but also house sev­eral hun­dred square feet worth of signed first edi­tion hard covers—as amaz­ing a sight as any book lover will ever see. This build­ing feels like a cross between a the­ater and a library, low lit as it is, with a podium set on a small stage where the writer reads, this spot­lighted, so that you can barely see the crowd when you look up, and so it feels more like giv­ing a per­for­mance than any other venue I’ve appeared in so far. The staff had hung the lights in the room with giant Mobius strips fash­ioned of con­struc­tion paper, there was a lit­tle bit of beer-drinking before­hand, the feel­ing was loose and relaxed, and when I got to the end of the Shep­pard sec­tion with its “thrice cli­max,” an enor­mous thun­der­storm broke over us—very apropos—and it poured so long and hard after­ward that peo­ple hung out well past the end of the Q & A.

The next morn­ing, it was down to Green­wood, MS, to Turn Row Books, run by Jamie and Kelly Korne­gay. I stayed at the Allu­vian, the fan­tas­tic bou­tique hotel in the heart of Green­wood and had the plea­sure of a great host, Jody Sim­cox, the brother of a very close friend. We played ten­nis mid­day, had lunch at Delta Bistro with Jody’s lovely wife Kim (the food was fan­tas­tic, Andouille  Sheppard’s pie, with a slice of lemon pie after­ward) fol­lowed by a tour of Green­wood and the Delta. There are gor­geous man­sions lin­ing the Yazoo River and I got to see a pivot irri­ga­tion sys­tem up close, which looks like the leg of a giant bug. Read in front of a very eclec­tic crowd at Turn Row that night. Among oth­ers, the multi-talented cook­book writer, Martha Hall Foose, was there, along with Academy-Award-winning cin­e­matog­ra­pher Stephen Gold­blatt, who was doing pre-production for the movie of The Help. After­ward, we had drinks and din­ner at Giardina’s, with Jody, Kim, Kelly, and Jamie (soft shell crab, unreal) and the dis­cus­sion ranged from the oil spill and its impact on the Delta to the rela­tion­ship between crit­ics and the book industry—which is all I’m going to say about that.

More to come…