You Must Go Home Again
For Johns Hopkins Alum James Whorton Jr., Ending Up Where You Started Isn’t So Bad
Whorton’s first book, 2003’s Approximately Heaven, just reprinted in paperback, and his latest, Frankland, both from Free Press, are lightly comic novels filled with peculiar Southern characters and sleepy Southern towns. His publisher’s promotional materials firmly yoke Whorton to the grand tradition of Southern writers, likening him to A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole. But Whorton confesses that, as a high-school student in Hattiesburg, Miss., he could make little sense of his region’s written traditions—most notably the novels of Southern lit’s patriarch, William Faulkner. In fact, the aspiring writer felt suffocated by the local reputation of the one-time postmaster of Oxford, Miss.
“When you’re 16, you need something to react against,” Whorton, 37, says by phone from his home in Gray, Tenn. “Everyone was talking about him.” When he graduated University of Southern Mississippi in 1989, Whorton wanted only to bolt, to test his talents against a more cosmopolitan audience, which is why he came to the fiction writing program at Johns Hopkins University.
“I wanted to find out if they would laugh at my work or say it wouldn’t cut it,” he says. “To me, that program was like seeing what the big league would think of my work.”
He found the input he was looking for. His stories got plenty of feedback from literary heavyweights like Stephen Dixon, Jean McGarry, Robert Stone, and, Whorton’s favorite, John Barth.
“The cool thing about Barth as a teacher is that he has a very systematic approach to analyzing stories. He talks about a story as if it were a machine,” Whorton says. “He will acknowledge that there is a mysterious aspect to a work of art, but he doesn’t try to talk about that in class. He will just talk about the machine.
“What we can’t talk about, we must pass over in silence,” he muses, summing up Barth’s teaching style.
Perhaps only incidentally, this act of passing over the unknowable, or trying to anyway, is what the main characters of both Whorton’s novels do. Whorton’s creations possess only modest abilities in handling life’s complexities. They are easily confused by murky ambiguity, and they stick the best they can to attending to the simple mechanics of day-to-day living. Whorton admits that other writers “usually pick more articulate or smarter people to be the heroes of their novels,” but he says he has discovered a gift for impregnating superficiality with meaning.
And his novels are, at least after a fashion, Southern. But Whorton is quick to point out that the settings of his books are entirely incidental, mere by-products of aesthetically indifferent economic forces.
After graduating from Hopkins in 1993, his best opportunity was a teaching job in the South, with a community college in Tennessee. “I was applying all over the place. I could have wound up in Oregon,” he says, remarking that the mid-’90s were particularly rough for job-seeking Ph.D.s. So he moved to Gray and, with the beginning novelist’s proclivity for the experiential, tapped the local surroundings for shading and detail.
Approximately Heaven is a humorous character study of out-of-work electrician Don “Wendell” Brush, the kind of laid-back individual who is a bit more comfortable with himself than he probably should be. In the opening pages, we find his wife, Mary, packing to leave. One can guess why. Though a genuinely good-hearted rube, Wendell has shortcomings aplenty. Well into his 30s, he freely admits to having little ambition and nurses a blindingly spiritual belief in the restorative powers of beer. Not helping matters any is the fact that Wendell has a congenital inability to understand any but the most simple abstract thoughts, a hard-wired cognitive directness easily mistaken for stupidity. Still, singularly in love with Mary, Wendell is willing to do whatever he has to do to keep her, even if he hasn’t the faintest clue what that might entail. But after some haphazard housecleaning fails to placate her, he hops in his ratty Toyota pickup and takes off, driven by the notion that if he leaves first then she can’t leave—if only because she would have to feed the pets. Approximately Heaven tracks this extended leave of absence, fueled by run-ins with old acquaintances and plenty of Natural Light.
“In a way, the book is about Wendell not thinking about something,” Whorton says. We get some fragments of self-reflection, but more of the book immerses us in Wendell’s tragically comic coping mechanisms. At one point, he finds himself swept up in a brief rush of euphoria from his newfound bachelorhood: “To celebrate and to promote this upbeat view of events, I stopped at an Exxon and bought a Slim Jim and one of those handy packages of six bottles of beer that comes in its own cardboard carrying case,” Whorton writes. “They are widely available. I also got a bag of ice and I placed it along with the six beers into the ice chest that happened conveniently to be sitting in the back of my truck where it always is.”
That Wendell felt satisfaction in finding an ice chest in the back of his truck—where it always is—is hilariously indicative of his miserable state of mind, a rich, understated moment worthy of a Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace, both of whom also mine mundane behaviors for their full descriptive and comedic powers.
While The New York Times gave Approximately Heaven a generally positive review, it chafed at Whorton’s light touch. “Whorton is insightful enough that it feels a cheat when he doesn’t go deeper,” the reviewer bemoaned.
In his own defense, Whorton says he tried making Wendell more introspective about the breakup of his marriage in an early draft of the book, but that such selective cognizance just didn’t work. “I couldn’t imagine him confronting some of this stuff fully head-on,” he says.
The main character in Whorton’s newest effort, Frankland, also is confronted by challenges beyond his comfort zone. Historical magazine editor John Tolley quits his New York job to drive to Greenville, Tenn., in order to find a lost and incriminating scrapbook of President Andrew Johnson, one supposedly missed by other historians. In Tolley’s mind, finding this scrapbook would establish him as a serious historian, imparting to him the credentials and respectability he feels are sorely lacking. Tolley’s car overheats just as he enters Tennessee, though, leaving him stranded in the small town of Pantherville.
The journey, Tolley darkly accounts as he walks away from the broken auto, “was almost certain to turn out badly and to teach me things about myself that I did not want to learn.” And indeed, it turns out to be one that involves: a kindhearted pyromaniac fire fighter, another New York refugee scouting a tip for a cable news show on four-handed babies in the area, and a Nashville college history professor who dismisses the existence of the Johnson scrapbook and then promptly goes after the thing himself.
“A big thing that is going on is the narrator has ideas about how he wants to be or how someone else should be,” Whorton says of Frankland. “He is trying to understand people by categories and is constantly perplexed by what people do.”
And if reviewers and publishers are guilty of a similar failing—only wanting to understand Whorton’s work within the category of “Southern Literature”—at least he doesn’t mind the comparisons. “I could list a dozen Southern writers I would love to be compared to,” he says. He’s even grown to appreciate Faulkner.
Now Whorton is embarking a third novel about a different kind of misadventure—Watergate—though he’s still in the research phase, reading the memoirs of the parties involved. “I’m fiddling around, I’m not very far into it,” he admits. In the meantime, his first two books have provided him with valuable insights on how not to write a book. For one, he won’t worry so much about staying true to his original vision. In much the same way that Tolley is forced to veer from his well-laid plan, so too did Whorton. For both novels, he says, he started out with elaborate and specific plans, only to disregard them later on. This time out, he plans to keep the outline looser and trust in the muse.
As for the lure of the South, Whorton insists that it holds no agency over him. Should the right job call, he’s open to packing his belongings and heading out.
“I have friends here, but there’s nothing particular about Tennessee that would make me want to stay,” Whorton says. In fact, a recent visit to Baltimore reminded him and his wife how much they loved the city during their Hopkins sojourn. Perhaps one day we’ll enjoy some Whorton-penned Baltimore lit—that is, if the hills of Tennessee don’t have other ideas about the matter.
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