Sunday, August 5, 2012

To ressurect a mockingbird

It pains me to confess this, but...

I am 61 years old, and I just finished reading Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." For the first time. Ever.

Shame on me.

I don't know why it took me this long. Last weekend, I was on a road trip with some buddies, and somehow in our conversations of Civil War, food, women, beer, wine, travel, politics, Olympics and sports, the book was mentioned. It's not that we're a particularly erudite group of guys, but every once in a while we'll stumble onto something unexpectedly satisfying and must tell others about it. I don't know, maybe it's just simple bragging. It's like hitting a horrible hook off the tee that somehow still bends into the fairway. Maybe it's simply a miracle.

Anyway, I revealed to the boys that I hadn't read the book. It had just never popped up in any of my high school summer reading lists. That was on Saturday. By Wednesday, I was in the library. I took it home. I took it to work. By Friday, I'd finished the book.

I'm still in awe. How in the world did I ever miss this one?

Back up a minute. I'd seen the movie a thousand times, so I knew the storyline. The movie also gave me the visuals on Atticus and Jem and Scout, on Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell. Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody else, could ever be Atticus Finch other than Gregory Peck. Not Jimmy Stewart, not Henry Fonda, not anybody. This movie, this book, this author and these actors are where a moment in time embraces perfection.

So the movie did not ruin the book for me. Instead, to my mind, they enhance each other. This is rare (like the hook shot that finds the fairway).

I'm not about to give a book report 53 years after it's publication, but while I'm reading it, I'm wondering about Southern literature and Southern authors, and what makes them what they are.

I googled Harper Lee and discovered she never had published another novel again. Why would she — how could she — after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird? I mean, what's left after that? And yet, that talent... I also learned she grew up in Monroeville, Ala., where her neighbor and schoolmate was Truman Capote (who was the model for Dill in her book). Are you kidding me? How does a small southern town (pop. 6800) offer two astounding authors?

Was Harper Lee courageous to write this novel? It first appeared in the hot embers of the Civil Rights movement. A white southern female uncovering our blemishes in dangerous times. Wow. This all adds to the intrigue of the book.

So what is it about great Southern literature? (You can specifically google that, too. See here.) What's the extra influence, the soul-crunching burden, the drama and the irony that bubbles to the surface in good southern writing? Race relations? The Civil War? The sometimes oppressive climate? The fried-food and kidney-stone diet? William Faulkner, Pat Conroy, John Grisham, Eudora Welty, Thomas Wolfe, Fannie Flagg, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, James Dickey...we can go on forever. More importantly, perhaps, is what makes us read them?

I don't know. For now, like Scout in the courthouse, I'm prompted to stand up. Greatness is passin.'

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