Monday, 27 August 2018

Modern Baptists

'He was very, very funny,' said the BBC man, wrapping up an obit piece on Neil Simon (who died yesterday), 'but he could be much deeper than that too.'
  Well, it's the standard line on comic and 'serious' writing. Only the latter can carry the 'deeper' truths and meanings. Hence the general undervaluing of comic writing and writers in our literary culture. A case in point is James Wilcox.
  I had never heard of James Wilcox until, a week or so ago, my eye alighted on one of his novels in a local charity shop. It was a Penguin Classic with the curious title of Modern Baptists. I noted a puff from Anne Tyler on the back – 'Wilcox has real genius. He is a writer to make us all feel hopeful' – and of course I bought it.
  James Wilcox, I learned, has spent his writing career accumulating rave reviews but never selling enough books to make a living. He doesn't have the kind of self-promoting chutzpah that is so important to a modern literary career; being something of a one-off, he cannot be easily classified – always a handicap; and, worst of all, he writes comic novels, and no one's going to take them seriously (except the more discerning critics and fellow writers). All the same, Modern Baptists  – his first novel, published in 1983 – found its way into Harold Bloom's The Western Canon.
  Having now read it, I'm inclined to agree with Anne Tyler: Wilcox does have a measure of comic genius. Modern Baptists is one of the funniest and most deftly executed comic novels I've come across in recent years. It's set in Louisiana (Wilcox's birthplace), but in a very particular corner of Louisiana, among the panhandle parishes that were never part of the Louisiana Purchase and so are less French and more Baptist.
  In the small town of Tula Springs, Mr Pickens, an unprepossessing middle-aged man, works at the Sonny Boy store and tries to cling on to respectability and lead a regular life. Under the impression that he's dying of a skin cancer, he invites his reprobate half-brother, F.X., to come and stay with him when he gets out of jail. This is his big mistake, the one from which all else follows, though there's another one – a silly prank he plays on a workmate, Toinette – that also has dire consequences. Toinette unfortunately falls for the handsome F.X. on sight, just as Mr Pickens finds himself falling in hopeless love with her. He is himself the equally hopeless love object of chunky checkout girl Burma LaSteele.
  From this initial scenario, the comedy grows, drawing in more characters, confusion, chaos and confrontations as it builds into a fine comic imbroglio that mingles satire, slapstick and farce, while remaining true to its characters. Modern Baptists is at the same time a vivid evocation of life in a small town in a particular corner of Louisiana, and a convincing psychological account of one man's increasingly desperate struggle to do the right thing.
  As for the title, the phrase 'modern Baptists' first occurs in a scene in which Mr Pickens (Bobby) and Burma are sitting by the canal, talking over the latest hair-raising developments in the F.X.-Toinette saga.

'"Bobby, do you think you drink too much?''
''I guess so.''
''And we're Baptists.''
''Modern Baptists can drink. It's only stuffed shirts like Dr McFlug who don't.''
''Well, I guess I"m a modern Baptist, then.'' She was still looking at the sky. ''Want to get drunk?''

The definition is expanded later, after Mr Pickens, with his life falling apart around him, decides he's going to be a preacher.

'Mr Pickens knew that once be got his preaching diploma, he would open a church for modern Baptists, Baptists who were sick to death of hell and sin being stuffed down their gullets every Sunday. There wasn't going to be any of that old-fashioned ranting and raving in Mr Pickens's church. His church would be guided by reason and logic ...'

Unsurprisingly, Mr Pickens never does get to be a preacher, though he does, on one occasion, get to rant and rave with the best of them...
  I'm glad to have found this book and discovered James Wilcox. I'll certainly be looking out for more titles by him.








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