Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kevin Sessum's "Mississippi Sissy"

I enjoyed Sessum's memoir about growing up gay and effeminate in the American South of the 1960s. The writing is witty and well-wrought. He has a knack for telling a nicely-turned anecdote though, in a few places, the writing strains for metaphorical resonance. As in this attempt to link Eudora Welty's carefully vague love story to her bourbon (a drink introduced in the first sentence of the chapter, Skeeter Davis, Noël Coward, and Eudora Welty):

They were mostly circumspect when discussing their lost loves. Frank (theater journalist and Sessum's friend) would often allude to his "dusky endeavors," as they had come to refer politely to his interest in young African Americans, some of whom had touched him deeply with their aspirations and narratives of maternal love. Miss Welty welcomed these stories of nuanced carnality, as Frank was careful not to tell her the details. One especially hot night under the glow of the big light that hung over his kitchen table, Miss Welty, her upper lip damp, did hint at the feelings she had for one young man long, long ago. Frank had tears in his eyes as she lyrically, elliptically, without ever admitting the depths of her own emotions but not denying them either, told us of a young poet who could obviously still summon a profound sadness within her all these years after he had moved away from Mississippi, from her, and taken up residence in San Francisco and Italy, places more "welcoming to his kind, to yours," she told us as her voice came to a halt and she perhaps heard only his now lost one in the sudden comfort of her silence. She finished neither the carefully diluted story nor the freshly diluted bourbon in front of her, both making it too dangerous that night, she seemed to reason in her reverie, for her to drive back home to a house forever musty with familial love alone.

I know zilch about Welty, so I wonder who her poet was. The polite understatement and indirection in Frank's and Welty's exchanges are typical of the South, I guess. In contrast, the last sentence of the extract is too naked, too close to sentimentality. It might still be alright if, instead of projecting "she seemed to reason in her reverie," the writer focuses on himself making that conjecture. I don't know; may be I am putting to fine a point on it. But "dusky endeavors" feels very different from "a house forever musty with familial love alone."

No comments: