Book Review
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Everything You Could Hope for in a Necropolis Archivist

"Last Chance Texaco" by Joe Lee (Dogwood Press, $22.95)

In case there are any music aficionados reading this column, let's state upfront that Joe Lee's "Last Chance Texaco" has nothing to do with the 1979 Rickie Lee Jones song of almost the same title. "Last Chance Texaco" is the fourth installment in Lee's critically acclaimed Oakdale series. Fictional Oakdale is a northeast Mississippi town near Tupelo. It's a small, unexciting Mississippi town with a Peyton Place underbelly and more than its share of secrets.

In past Oakdale books, the reader has been introduced to a bad policeman, a police chief on the take, a psycho debutante turned fugitive, a flaky news broadcaster and a shady football coach. Now we meet a sociopathic builder and an overachieving CPA.

We've always been told that at or near the top of any list of "do's" in Writing 101 is the recommendation that an author should write about what he knows. Lee obviously took that class because the protagonist of "Last Chance Texaco," Chris Brantley, is an extension of Lee himself. Brantley, like the author Lee, is a newsman, a writer and a recreational runner who lives with his family in a small community in Rankin County. Lee must also have been attentive the day his instructor discussed creating interesting and quirky characters, a tradition that's brought fame to numerous Mississippi authors from Tennessee Williams to William Faulkner to Jimmy Buffett.

In "Last Chance Texaco," Chris Brantley accidentally meets his old flame Lisa at Oakdale's Texaco after finishing a 10-kilometer run. Twenty years prior, Chris and Lisa were an item until Lisa met and married her now ex-husband, Ed Youngblood. Chris is married to Angie, a CPA who's more attached to her job than she is to him. Chris, who works from home, does most of the parenting of their 10-year-old son Billy since Angie's life revolves more and more around advancing her career.

Lisa, now a fifth-grade teacher, wants to stay in touch. Her ex-husband is a hulking, wealthy and successful man who has a history of jealousy-related violence. In his mind he is still married and demands conjugal privileges from Lisa on a regular basis. Lisa accommodates him to avoid a custody battle over their daughter, Savannah.

Now throw in a car wreck, a biological daughter who'd been put up for adoption at birth and a deranged hit man -- and you have a classic Southern bittersweet soap-opera thriller loaded with twists and turns both good and evil, all set in a seemingly serene burg.

It is clear that Joe Lee understands the society about which he writes. He is a native Mississippian who's lived most of his life in Jackson and Starkville. He's married to another native Mississippian from the coastal town of Bay St. Louis. He's a graduate of Mississippi State and has worked in journalism, radio, TV and publishing. His wife Leslie, the special assistant attorney general for the Mississippi Attorney General's office in Jackson, serves as a major resource for his books. He also holds journalism classes.

-- Reviewed by David

and Nancy Beckwith

"Christopher Columbus, The Embroideress and the Man Who Was Buried Standing Up"-- Harper's Magazine

It was a light summer read by noted Canadian author, poet and literary biographer Rosemary Sullivan. The title was intriguing, a recounting of Sullivan's visit to Havana's iconic Cementerio de Cristobal Colon. Barely into the piece, I was stopped in my tracks by the following sentence: "Short, rotund, and sexually ambiguous, Octavio was everything you could hope for in a necropolis archivist."

Where to begin? Let's start with the loopy assumption that there is a universal understanding as to what constitutes an ideal necropolis archivist. Think about it. When was the last time, if any, you turned your attention to the topic of an archivist toiling in a necropolis? I rest my case.

The next assumption is equally puzzling. Why are "short," "rotund" and "sexually ambiguous" to be considered ideal qualities in an individual pursuing a career as a graveyard chronicler? Let's examine those qualities one at a time. Short stature might prove helpful if the job description requires tramping around catacombs. But the next qualification -- rotund-- would appear to be counterproductive to such subterranean activity. And "sexually ambiguous"? The term renders Octavio gender neutral.

These traits describe an unprepossessing, near-invisible being who'll not draw attention away from the famous and near-famous whose remains are interred in Havana's Colon Cementerio. Perhaps that is why Octavio is "everything you hope for in a necropolis archivist" -- he doesn't compete for attention.

Sullivan, a scholarly but lively writer, has written well-received biographies of Canadian literati Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Elizabeth Smart as well as her critically acclaimed account of the French Resistance, "Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille."

Her essay detailing a visit to the resting place of Cuba's elite -- writers, politicians, military heroes, artists and legendary baseball players -- is breezy and informative. We also learn of the lesser known occupants, the aforementioned "embroideress" and man who was buried standing up.

As Sullivan notes, remains of Columbus himself are rumored to be buried there, despite aggressive claims by Spain and the Dominican Republic to the intrepid Genoese explorer's earthly relics.

Interesting, too, is the discovery that the bodies of the sailors killed in the 1898 explosion of the US Maine in Havana Harbor were interred there. The bodies were exhumed the following year and returned to the United States and their final resting place right here at home. But it's that deceptively simple yet catchy sentence, "everything you could hope for in a necropolis archivist," that's locked in my memory.

Damn, I wish I'd written that.

-- Contributed

by George Fontana