I met Kane Webb for an early dinner at the Town Pump in Little Rock (one of my favorite, independent, locally owned establishments) Tuesday night.
As I pulled up, I could see Kane staring into the adjacent parking lot of the Dixie Cafe.
What had he spotted?
“That was Charles Portis going in to eat over there,” Kane said. “He’s probably the most celebrated author in the country right now due to the remake of the movie ‘True Grit.’ And here he is going to eat — probably by himself — at the Dixie Cafe.”
What a small, wonderful state this is. Kane and I agreed on that fact long before the chips and cheese dip (true Arkansans must order cheese dip at such establishments) had arrived.
You’re going to dinner and you run into a famous yet unassuming — some would say reclusive — author.
He’s our version of J.D. Salinger or Nelle Harper Lee.
Kane had written in this month’s issue of the constantly improving Arkansas Life magazine: “I’ve touted the literary brilliance of our resident genius so often that folks surely tune me out when they hear the words ‘True’ and ‘Grit.’ Which is either Portis’ best, second-best or third-best novel on my all-time list. It depends on which book of his I’ve read (again) most recently. … For the sake of the American reading public, let’s hope the move rekindles interest in the book, and that in turn rekindles interest in Portis’ other books. He deserves it, yes, but we deserve it.”
We live in a state filled with immensely talented people, almost all of them as equally unassuming as Buddy Portis.
Pretension is just not in our Arkansas DNA.
I was reminded of that yet again last night when I arrived home from dinner and found a package from Dr. Judson Hout of Camden.
Another of the great things about a state of fewer than 3 million people is that we all know each other or at least pretend to. Judson Hout grew up in Newport. My father’s first job out of college was to serve as the high school football coach in Newport.
Dad left coaching in 1951. Dr. Hout still refers to him as Coach Nelson.
I like that.
Judson Hout graduated from Newport High School, went on to receive his medical degree from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and then practiced medicine on military bases and in communities in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Most people think they have a novel in them.
The difference between Dr. Hout and the vast majority of us is that he actually wrote his novel.
And he found a publisher — Ted Parkhurst of Little Rock.
I began reading “The Ghost of Bud Parrott” last night. It’s outstanding.
Dr. Hout explains his connection to the real Bud Parrott in his foreward: “This novel, this work of fiction, is the result of my affection for the time and place in which I grew up: Northeast Arkansas in the 1940s mostly. I have chosen to use the real name of a man who was my friend and confidant in those days, Bud Parrott.
“I knew Bud Parrott late in his life. He taught me a great deal about being a man in this world. Although he lived with my family for eight years, I learned nothing of his past. There were rumors that he had played Negro League baseball in his youth, rumors he would neither confirm nor deny. He could, however, throw a sharply breaking curve ball, a skill he tried to teach me without success.
“When I decided to write a novel, I chose to make Bud the hero and picture him as I imagined his life might have been. In doing this, I have completed a work that is purely and totally fiction. In all the years Bud was close to me, I felt I never really knew him. His outward jovial, cheerful personality seemed to mask a deeper sadness. As far as any of us knew, he had no relatives.
“In writing of that time and place, I have felt it was important to use the deplorable N-word in places. It is not used to offend the reader but rather to be true to the period and place. I hope the reader will understand and accept that for what it is.”
U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes has called the book “a racial-healing saga for the ages.”
The Rev. Lawrence Braden, a physician and Episcopal priest, said it opens a “window on the social disease that is bigotry.”
Brian Hardwick, the chief executive officer of Regal Energy Corp. in Dallas, said: “Baseball fans and those who love a well-turned coming-of-age story will find themselves absorbed in this tale of life in small towns, farmlands, factories and ballparks from Pennsylvania to Alabama to Arkansas.”
Here’s how the book begins, just to give you a sample of the good writing that follows: “I am haunted by a menagerie of memories of childhood. Pleasant and unpleasant, the days of my youth have been tumbled in a drum of years. Days of excitement, anticipation and discovery are jumbled up with events so frightening I wish they would go away. Some days from those years so long ago often do seem buried in some New Orleans-style vault, away somewhere, yet not quite out of consciousness. Always, they are floating in my subconscious ready to pierce the veil of knowing.
“From the day I walked out of Newport, the county seat that had been my home in Northeast Arkansas, in 1953, I have poked and prodded those ghosts whenever they threatened entry into my daily thoughts. Now the time had come to brave the place again, to travel back into the Delta, to see Newport one last time. To resurrect the ghost of Bud Parrott required a bold attempt to burying the others, once and for all.”
John Minor, one of my father’s favorite football players at Newport High School, found a photograph of the real Bud Parrott that’s used in the book.
“Your father knew him,” Dr. Hout wrote to me. “Bud was a janitor at Newport High School during Coach Nelson’s last year there.”
Dr. Hout has had successful book signings in recent weeks at Newport, Blytheville (Mary Gay Shipley and That Bookstore At Blytheville are Arkansas treasures), Little Rock and Camden.
This first novel deserves wider publicity, however.
Here’s how the dust jacket explains it: “In the tradition of Southern youth portrayed by Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Harper Lee, Judson Hout gives us the voice of Isaac Wood, whose coming of age in the White River bottoms of Northeast Arkansas takes us back to the 1950s, when Elvis was still touring the flats of east Texas and Burma Shave was laying claim to the fenceposts along Highway 66.
“Beginning and ending with a frame story — Isaac Wood as an older adult — the guts of this little Southern novel are laid out like the innards of a White River catfish. Some say ‘purdy’ and some are aghast. In that frame is the life story of young Isaac Wood’s surrogate father. From the wrong side of the tracks comes a quiet man to fill that part, a man who keeps his own council and treats folks right. A man all covered in black skin, Bud Parrott walks out of Jackson County and near-slavery at the age of 16.
“Hopping a freight, Bud heads to Birmingham to seek his fortune. Along the way, Bud is inducted into the rites of the curious fraternity of hobos. Brush-arbor campfires, watering stations for steam locomotives and haunting interiors of boxcars prove the settings for Bud’s induction ceremonies, events for which no crepe paper or soda-pop punch are provided.
“Traveling with hobos and later courting, working in an industrial mill, playing Negro League baseball on the Pittsburgh team with Satchel Paige, standing up to a numbers-running boss and inevitably paying the price for his courage, Bud’s introduction to humanity away from home is as colorful and episodic as Huck Finn’s float on the Mississippi.”