June 22, 2017

Southern Stories in the Books of 2016

In November I was a guest at a small party in River Oaks at the mansion of Exxon heiress Joan Blaffer Johnson; I met Joan and one of her sons. It was a sunny day and a lovely gathering on Del Monte Drive. But I recalled a scandal which took place in that mansion; something about a con man who not only took over the family’s finances but also terrorized them for years. After leaving the party one of my friends asked, “Didn’t you read Monster in River Oaks?” I bought and read the book right away. And OMG! As regular TroysArt readers know, it is a yearly tradition for me to comment on some of the significant books that I read during that the past year. And Monster in River Oaks by Michael Phillips is just one of the many southern stories in the books of 2016.

It must have been an unimaginable humiliation: one of the wealthiest women in America—granddaughter of the founder of Exxon—buying her underwear at Walgreens … Those plastic packs of underwear were the only thing that Joan was allowed to buy without Dinny’s input, the only thing she could choose for herself without fear of criticism, or worse.

A peek into the lovely Blaffer Johnson mansion as it is today, without obscured windows.

A peek into the lovely Blaffer Johnson mansion as it is today, without obscured windows.

I was actually living a couple blocks down from the Blaffer-Johnson mansion when this took place—for almost a decade I resided in the carriage house of one of the classic mansions on Del Monte Drive. A smarmy opportunist named Dinesh (Dinny) Shah, with help of accomplice David Collie, wormed his way into Joan’s life, moved into the mansion, took over the money, blacked out the windows, would not allow the children to play outside, and even designed the clothing they wore. His reign of terror over the family escalated to verbal abuse, mental torment, and physical and sexual assault—even raping the minor son.

The author Michael Phillips was one of Dinny Shah’s high-powered defense attorneys. Once his final trial was over he told Shah to take a hike and wrote this tell-all true-crime novel. I almost felt like a voyeur soaking in every gruesome detail of this shocking tale of torture and manipulation. Sounds as though Joan was lucky not to have been murdered—she might have been the golden goose but Dinny had Power of Attorney over her children and their vast wealth.

I know many of the places and people in this book. It’s a must read—especially for Houstonians.

This year I devoured another southern true-crime story. When I lived in Jennings a few years back the hottest topic in town was the unsolved murders in what has become known as the Jeff Davis 8. And over the past few years I learned that an investigative journalist named Ethan Brown set about investigating the killings. The recently published book is the result of Brown working with public record searches and interviews. So, I was eager to read Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8? So enthralled, when I finished the book I dedicated a specific post to it also (TroysArt – Read Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou).

Lake Arthur waterfront by Lake Arthur by Chad Ryan Pellerin via Wikimedia Commons.

Lake Arthur waterfront by Lake Arthur by Chad Ryan Pellerin via Wikimedia Commons.

As Jackson peered deeper into the Grand Marais Bayou, he spied the outline of a human body. It had come up on the news that someone had stole some mannequins,” Jackson told me, “so I thought that one of the mannequins ended up in the water somehow.” Jackson focused his eyes on the figure. “I saw flies, and mannequins don’t attract flies.”

Brown asserts that these murders were not the work of a serial killer but rather the violent fallout of the brutal sex and drug underbelly of small town Louisiana. Is it possible that confiscated drugs make it back onto the streets via the very police who seized them? And is it possible that the killings have not been solved because of corrupt elected officials?

It is disturbing that such an idyllic southern town with charm and Christian values has been tarnished by not only the number of unsolved murders but by such shocking and salacious allegations against those avowed to protect it.

Since my original post about Murder in the Bayou the author Ethan Brown contacted me—he loved my post and even linked it to his followers.

Hathaway Hall in The River Road is obviously Nottoway; Nottoway Plantation by Ludovic Bertron from New York City, USA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hathaway Hall in The River Road is obviously Nottoway; Nottoway Plantation by Ludovic Bertron from New York City, USA, via Wikimedia Commons.

I also read Gone with the Wind (TroysArt – The novel Gone with the Wind), the quintessential southern story, which was included in a much earlier blog post about my favorite books (TroysArt – A few favorite reads) though I had not read it since 1987. So I read it again and relished it.

It is one of the most beautiful and fast paced books I ever read—never a dull moment told by a true wordsmith. And reading it again at this more mature station in life gave it more gravity; I picked up so many important details, had so much more empathy with the characters, and understood the historical ramifications.

Yes, Melanie had been there that day with a sword in her small hand, ready to do battle for her. And now, as Scarlett looked sadly back, she realized that Melanie had always been there beside her with a sword in her hand, unobtrusive as her own shadow, loving her, fighting for her with blind passionate loyalty, fighting Yankees, fire, hunger, poverty, public opinion and even her beloved blood kin. Scarlett felt her courage and self-confidence ooze from her as she realized that the sword which had flashed between her and the world was sheathed forever.

Gone with the Wind is the definition of the Great American Novel, and if you can read one great classic, and even if it takes a year, do it.  If not, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Evergreen Plantation by John Cummings via Wikimedia Commons.

Evergreen Plantation by John Cummings via Wikimedia Commons.

Following Gone with the Wind I found a copy of another epic southern drama. I was excited to read The River Road by Frances Parkinson Keyes—I mean, what is not to love? Reading about plantations rarely disappoints and, as an aspiring Louisianan novelist, learning about Keyes was high on my list. After all, I did love Dinner at Antoine’s.

The River Road tells the sweeping saga of the ancient and proud d’Alvery family who struggles to keep their sugar plantation Belle Heloise viable between the two world wars. But my goodness, this book is as long as Gone With The Wind and took longer to read; honestly, I was so bored. The author poured over the mundane minutiae of life on the Mississippi River, some parts interesting but few and far between.

Considerable bustle attended the d’Alverys’ departure: Amen headed the procession, wheeling a barrow piled high with bags, which he intended to place, personally, in the cabins reserved for his white folks, as he had no confidence in “steamboat niggers.” He was followed by Dinah, wearing the costume she reserved for great occasions; but instead of carrying a twin on each arm, as usual, she propelled them in a perambulator veiled with a lace-edged mosquito bar, for at the approach of dusk, the mosquitoes began to swarm in a vicious cloud. It was because of these same pests that Merry and Gervais, who came next, carried nothing but mosquito whips of split palmetto, which they flourished constantly. Following the prospective travelers came Madame d’Alvery in the elaborate wheel chair which she now used when she went about the plantation, beyond the pergola. It had a top shaped like a gigantic parasol, and the billowing fringe with which this was edged helped to keep off the insects; so did Lucie, who walked beside Selah as he pushed the chair, and who wielded a large fan, for Madame d’Alvery did not exert herself to the extent of using a mosquito whip.

Nottoway Ballroom was thinly veiled as the Hathaway Hall Ballroom in The River Road; photo by Serge Ottaviani, via Wikimedia Commons.

Nottoway Ballroom was thinly veiled as the Hathaway Hall Ballroom in The River Road; photo by Serge Ottaviani, via Wikimedia Commons.

The best part of the book for me was the evocative settings. Keyes actually lived at the Cottage Plantation which I now know was the inspiration of Belle Heloise. I remember the ruins of The Cottage, columns eerily rising from the tall grass, on the River Road from when I was at LSU. But in place of the ruined Cottage Plantation I imagined Belle Heloise as Evergreen while reading this. And of course Hathaway Hall in the book is a thinly veiled Nottoway, its White Ballroom at the very least giving the setting away.

I also bought Keye’s Blue Camelia, the story of Midwestern farmers transplanted to the Cajun prairie, but it might be a minute before I pick up another of her books. I realized that she is a legendary Louisiana author but I am just not there right now.

All of the books above take place in the south; and relationships in the stories told do not end well…

Escaping southern genres I read Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, a #1 New York Times Bestseller and now a major motion picture. Louisa Clark is an ordinary woman who has lived a life close to the village where she was raised. But after accepting a much needed job as caretaker for a wealthy and handsome man named Will Traynor, who is paralyzed from the neck down, her life changes.

In the center of the room stood a black wheelchair, its seat and back cushioned by sheepskin. A solidly built man in a white collarless scrubs was crouching down, adjusting a man’s feet on the footrests of the wheelchair. As we stepped into the room, the man in the wheelchair looked up from under shaggy, unkempt hair. His eyes met mine, and after a pause, he let out a bloodcurdling groan. Then his mouth twisted, and he let out another unearthly cry.

I felt his mother stiffen.

“Will, stop it!”

He didn’t even glance toward her. Another prehistoric sound emerged from somewhere near his chest. It was terrible, agonizing noise. I tried not to flinch. The man was grimacing, his head tilted and sunk into his shoulders as he stared at me through contorted features. He looked grotesque, and vaguely angry. I realized that where I held my bag, my knuckles had turned white.

They come to develop feelings for each other as she learns of his plans to have himself euthanized.

The style of this heartbreaking romantic novel about two people of different backgrounds, brought together by difficult circumstances, develops rapidly and flows smoothly. Yes, it is a romance but not a sticky, syrupy bodice ripper of forbidden passions. I found it to be an engrossing read and I highly recommend it. But once again, a book about a relationship that does not end well.

JoJo Moyes has written a sequel titled After You. But as much as I enjoyed Me Before You I feel satisfied enough with its conclusion that I will skip After You.

Bergdorf-Goodman on Fifth Avenue by Christopher Peterson via Wikimedia Commons.

Bergdorf-Goodman on Fifth Avenue by Christopher Peterson via Wikimedia Commons.

I picked up another New York Times Bestseller entitled The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. And as implied by the title it is based on the story of Truman Capote and the beautiful, rich circle of friends in Manhattan leading up to the peak of his literary career: Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, and especially Babe Paley.

Truman approached him, a martini in one hand, a cigarette in the other. He was red of face, flustered, sweat plastering his thinning hair to his forehead. But he surveyed the room with the satisfaction of a potentate. “Oh, I love the Plaza, don’t you? It’s my favorite place on earth. I just adore how even the bellhops look down their noses at you, as if you might take a shit in the potted plants.”

A prominent location in The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Plaza Hotel by Rangilo Gujarati (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

A prominent location in The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Plaza Hotel by Rangilo Gujarati (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2015 I wrote about The Party of the Century by Deborah Davis (Troysart – A few good reads) and this book closely follows the relationships explained in that book except with vivid dialogue and the addition of the ultimate estrangement between the group once Truman wrote La Cote Basque 1965 which scandalized the clique by exposing secrets and betraying trusts. It is considered the meanest short story in American history; it is said that In Cold Blood made Capote and La Cote Basque 1965 ruined him.

This book was hard to set down. And though it takes place in recent decades and focuses on socialites, I call this book a work of historical fiction.

And finally to a classic that I have heard of but never read, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Surprisingly, this is the only novel ever written by Wilde—the Irish author being known for poems and plays rather. This book so offended the moral sensibilities of the English when published, many said that Wilde merited prosecution for violating public morality laws.

How sad it is!” murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait.  “How sad it is!  I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful.  But this picture will remain always young.  It will never be older than this particular day of June … If it were only the other way!  If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!  For that—for that—I would give everything!  Yes, there is nothing in the world I would not give!  I would give my soul for that!”

Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

We are all familiar with the storyline, aren’t we? A strikingly handsome and wealthy young man in 19th Century London leads a debaucherous and immoral lifestyle but never ages—the twist is that he has traded his soul so that an oil painting of him manifests his age and his sins while he physically does not.

A warning to the casual reader: Oscar Wilde, like any work from antiquity, can be a difficult read. Luckily, I had personal help in understanding a portion or two. I texted dear friend Dr. Samuel Gladden (Professor of Literature and Associate Dean of the School of Human Sciences and Humanities at the University of Houston-Clearlake) who has written books on Oscar Wilde; for example, I did not understand what Dorian had written on a note to a friend so damaging as to coerce him into disposing of a murdered body. Samuel replied, “They were lovers, and Dorian Gray threatened to out him to his mother.” Oh! I am not always so good at reading between the lines.

What I cannot understand is why Dorian was so upset by the portrait–the painting showed the ravages of age, drug abuse, STDs, and general immorality.  It is what he wanted in the first place, after all.  I think that the moral of Wilde’s story is that, without balance, such an onerous lifestyle can wear a man down.

But what may have been subtle to me was at the time labeled as vulgar and poisonous, with the The Picture of Dorian Gray used as evidence in Wilde’s widely publicized legal battle. Wilde was subsequently convicted of indecency with other men and sentenced to a hard labor prison. Who knew that such an elegantly written story with luxurious surroundings and mesmerizing internal struggles could contribute to such ruination.

I enjoyed the southern stories, but 2016 was a year of books that did not end well! We will see what 2017 has in store for us.