January 28, 2020

‘Phone-booth’ book club has a recommendation

                Book clubs can overflow a living room. Our book club can fit inside a phone booth, if you can still find one. Larry Walker and I are unabashed bookaholics. We are a two-man book club.
The Perry attorney does a better job of chronicling his reads. Larry underlines poignant passages, and he writes a critique on the front blank pages. On a scale of 1 to 10, he rates each book. In 2019, he logged 34 books, only the ones in which he’s read every word.
My goal is a book a week, and I may be reading two or three at one time. If I need a break, I go back and forth between volumes. But during the holidays, I zipped through several. My favorite was sent by Larry: Ferriday, Louisiana by Elaine Dundy.
“The start is a little slow,” he warned, “but don’t give up.” The cover’s tagline reads, “Portrait of a remarkable American town that can boast of the likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Howard K. Smith and General Claire Chennault.” I dug into Ferriday like a bag of hot boiled peanuts.
I don’t know much about big cities, but towns of 5,000 or so folks are my sweet spot. Jesup wasn’t any bigger than Ferriday when I was wearing out the knees of my dungarees shooting marbles in South Georgia. We had some characters, but none that catapulted to world renown like Gen. Claire Lee Chennault. He didn’t invent military air warfare, but he perfected it. Larry added a footnote. His late father-in-law, Odell Knighton, an ace airplane mechanic, went “over the Hump” with Gen. Chennault and his Flying Tiger formation in World War II.
And while the general—with the prickliness of a teed-off bantam rooster—was pecking the eyes out of Axis troops, newsman Howard K. Smith was telling the world about it. But first, he soared into academia’s stratosphere as a Rhodes Scholar. The young journalist/writer was enamored with Europe, a front-row seat to watch Hitler pump up his Nazi regime. In 1960, the boy from the mud-caked-Mississippi-Delta town—with a once-upon-a-time-you-might-get-shot-or-cut reputation—moderated the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.
Ferriday’s roll call of Who’s Who rolls on. Born months apart, three cousins stormed into notoriety, with a dash of infamy. Remember the 1980s movie Urban Cowboy? Houston’s honkytonk, Gilley’s, was center stage. The alcohol-infused dancehall is closed, but Mickey Gilley is still wowing crowds. In his prime, Mickey could rival his first cousin’s banging all 88 piano keys. “Room Full of Roses,” “Stand by Me” and “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time” are standards on Sirius XM’s Willie’s Roadhouse channel.
And when Larry and I heard that Mickey’s cousin Jerry Lee Lewis was celebrating his 80th-birthday tour in Tunica, Mississippi, we snared tickets. Jerry Lee shuffled across the casino’s stage. But when he plopped before the ebony Yamaha grand, it was “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on” non-stop, right into an encore. Jerry Lee fans must read Rick Bragg’s biography of “The Killer.”
The other cousin, the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, skyrocketed into the clouds of fame and fortune, courtesy of TV evangelism. And then there was that infamous backsliding dalliance with a New Orleans streetwalker. You have to give it to Jimmy. He repented and cried before a worldwide audience. The reverend has a way with words. The late Lewis Grizzard believed that God listened to Billy Graham but that He taped Jimmy Swaggart.
Take it from our two-man book club: Ferriday is a sporty read. Even in a phone booth, if you can still find one.