Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mississippi Vi-SISSY-tudes

Happy New Year, Fellow Bookmen!

The five of us present last evening (including one new member; welcome!) took part in a lively discussion of Kevin Sessums' 2007 memoir, Mississippi Sissy. We all enjoyed the book and recommend it, though the first half--which recalls the trials and tribulations of the young Kevinator/Arlene as he comes to terms with his sexuality, the loss of family members, and his early awareness that the only way he can fit into his environment would be to sacrifice his essence--is overly drawn out and cluttered with details. (I did not feel this nearly as strongly as did my colleagues, I should note.) But we all found the second half, where Kevin comes into his own (so to speak) both as a character and memoirist, compelling and masterful, and wished it could have been even longer.

Questions of authenticity and truthfulness arose, as they always will in the consideration of memoirs, and here opinion was more divided. My own upbringing in Shreveport, Louisiana (a bit bigger than Jackson, Misssissippi, but all too similar), where I was born about five years after Sessums, was, mercifully, far less Southern Gothic than his, but observation after observation, and character and character, in the account rang true for me. However, others were less persuaded, and Sessum's use of reconstructed dialogue (which he acknowledges in his preface), in particular, seemed to be a sticking point. That is a valid criticism, but I still tend to subscribe to the "If that's not what they said, then it's what they SHOULD have" school in situations like that.

A final observation: I recall commenting to the group when we discussed Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors a few years ago that while the events he recounts may well have happened, I didn't believe it--and more crucially, I didn't believe Burroughs. I feel exactly the opposite about this memoir, and I warmly commend it to you all. Thanks to whoever recommended it. Cheers, Steve


Tim said...

I'm sorry I was unable to attend the discussion. I found the second part "cluttered with detail," and worse, failing to realize the potential I felt promised in the first. But then in general, I have to admit, I found his experiences as a liberal, or even gay, Mississippian much less interesting than his experiences as a sissy. Consequently his trajectory from sissy to gay disappointed. He comments so little on this transition that I wonder how aware he was of it. I was surprised, for example, to learn that he was a successful athlete, even a successful team player. How did his teammates deal with his sissyness, particularly after he dropped off their teams. Was he bullied then? (Was he ever bullied?) Those transitional details from sissy to gay aren't even unwittingly recorded. Instead we get an irrelevant story about his brother's adult visit to Billy Graham and misplaced tributes to his mentor Frank Hains. One of these latter interrupts the budding relationship between Kevin and his first black lover. This is particularly regrettable considering the apropriate detail we earlier received about his black nanny Matty May.

Frank Hains should have been the subject of a separate memoir and one not devoted to commemorating his wit and style but rather to his warmth and humanity (an older man who helps Kevin, not least by keeping sex out of their relationship). We should have learned there, what we don't in this book, how Kevin dealt with his grief and loss over that following year.

As for the dialogue, reconstructed or otherwise, what was it that "stuck" with people I wonder. Sorry I wasn't there to have heard. In any event I had no problem with it (nor would, I think, any other reader of Thucydides).

And finally, regarding your thanks to the person who recommend MS, you're welcome—c'est moi. I only wish I could thank myself more.

DCSteve1441 said...

Hi, Tim--

I was fairly certain you were the responsible party, and now wish I had gone back through my e-mail folder to confirm that before posting my readout on the meeting. In any case, thanks again for yet another fine choice. :-)

At the same time, I'm truly sorry that you were apparently so disappointed by the memoir's shortcomings. Had you been able to join us last night, that acerbic perspective (perhaps akin to that of a former admirer whose eyes have been opened to the flaws of a beloved?) would have been quite refreshing, I'm sure.

Several members of the group also singled out the story of the brother's call on Billy Graham as an episode that could and should have been cut. I understand the sentiment and even share it to a limited extent. Nonetheless, as I commented last night, I think it is there for a valid purpose: both as a segue and--more importantly--as a contrast to the odious Dr. Gallman (with whose name and character Charles Dickens would have had a field day, by the way).

Simply put, for many Southern "recovering fundamentalists" like myself (and Sessums and Frank Hains, I suspect), Billy Graham remains an icon. While I am no longer in full sympathy with his religious convictions, to put it mildly, I still admire him as someone who has always walked the walk and not just talked the talk. So my hunch is that Sessums inserted that episode, at least in part, to remind readers that not every preacher is predatory, hypocritical, dishonest or benighted.

I absolutely agree that Hains deserves his own memoir (and biography). With any luck, that is already in the works. However, with all due respect, Sessums does say exactly what you seem to feel he failed to make clear about the roots of their friendship. (Forgive me for not looking up and citing the relevant passages here, but if you remain skeptical of my claim, let me know and I will.)

Yes, the stories about the parties and the many quips are more vivid and entertaining than the tributes to Hains' character and countless acts of kindness, both to Sessums and many others. But the latter are most assuredly there.