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At Peace?

Call him Tennessee; Elmwood’s graveyard book club.

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All the stories presented in this book are true. Except when they aren't."

Consider that claim an official author's statement on a copyright page. And call that author "Tennessee." Because that's the name he's been given by friends the world over. And that's why the author calls his memoir Call Me Tennessee (Langhorne Creative Group). But the writer's also known by his given name: Jeff Klitzner, who has decided, age 31, to air his "dirty laundry, despite the almost certain drama that will occur as a result."

Why the drama? Why for certain? It started at birth, which Klitzner describes on page one of his book as "an act of desperation on my mother's part to keep a failed marriage together. Well, her plan backfired."

It — the drama — continued into childhood, which Klitzner describes as not exactly a "cake walk": "I wasn't allowed to play with the whites, because I was Jewish; I couldn't play with the blacks, because I looked white; the Jews wouldn't play with me, because I was poor." What's a fellow to do? Fight for some respect. Which Klitzner did: fight.

Growing up, he was diagnosed with ADHD and OCD. He "acted out." He rarely saw his father, who died when Klitzner was still a boy. He scarcely got along with his mother. Then puberty hit. He grew to six feet. He weighed in at 300 pounds. And before we go any further, let it be said: What Call Me Tennessee lacks in literary polish, it makes up for in the velocity and anarchic spirit of this guy's adventures and misadventures boozing, drugging, and criss-crossing the globe: from the U.S. to Europe to the Middle East to the Far East to New Zealand. Based on the events described, it's a wonder Klitzner's made it this far.

But it's a good thing he did, because Klitzner would have missed acting as a "parking Nazi" during his student days at the University of Memphis; missed serving as a legislative intern in Nashville; missed shaking the hand of the future king of England, Prince William; missed helping out on a stage show about one woman's "journey in life from being a Rockette to a nice Jewish housewife, who happened to be Japanese"; missed becoming an inter-gender mud-wrestling champ on the shores of Korea; and missed out on a drug run in Jerusalem, during which Klitzner found himself in a room full of Russians carrying Uzis and a guy with a machete and trash bag.

But Klitzner survived; his body barely, based on the medical history the author supplies in these pages: an alcoholically induced, swollen-shut esophagus; a tumor on his adrenal gland; a bowel obstruction; gallbladder, appendix, and a bunch of teeth ... gone.

And he's survived (with a measure of peace) to return to his hometown Memphis, a city with a "strange gravitational pull" — a place, Klitzner writes, "I hated and loved at the same time. I loved it for what it could be, and I hated it for what it was. It was kind of like myself."

If you'd like to meet Jeff Klitzner and buy a copy of Call Me Tennessee, be at his local haunt, the Starbucks at the intersection of Poplar and White Station, this weekend. He'll be on hand Saturday, August 20th, from 3 to 7 p.m. and Sunday, August 21st, from 2 to 6 p.m. And while you're at it, pick up several copies. According to Klitzner, for every two books sold, he'll donate one copy to U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"From what I understand," Klitzner said by phone, "they need something to do. And from the soldiers I've already given copies to, they said they enjoyed reading it. It makes me feel good to give back."

Has it done Klitzner's mother any good to have her son "give back" in Call Me Tennessee?

"She's aware of the book," Klitzner said. "She hasn't read it. I won't let her read it. It's kind of ... if I let my mother know what's in this book, I'll never hear the end of it."


R.I.P.

A cemetery the site of a book club? That's the idea behind Read In Peace, a club formed last May by staff members at Elmwood Cemetery, and Cookie Swain, Elmwood's visitor and volunteer coordinator, says you're invited. It's free to join. It's open to all. Meetings are monthly and held inside the Phillips Cottage, the handsome Victorian Gothic structure that serves as Elmwood's visitors' center.

This month's book-club title was Being Dead Is No Excuse, Gayden Metcalf and Charlotte Hayes' good-natured guide to the do's and don'ts of a proper Southern funeral. But Read In Peace club members not only discussed it, they furnished some food for thought — literally: among the offerings, Swain's pineapple casserole.

As Swain said in a recent phone interview, though, Read In Peace can be more serious-minded: In May, the club discussed Audrey Niffenegger's novel Her Fearful Symmetry, which features London's Highgate Cemetery. In June, members read Shiloh, the novel by Shelby Foote (who is buried at Elmwood). And in July, the subject was Alan Huffman's Sultana, a recounting of the steamboat disaster just north of Memphis following the Civil War.

"We try not to get too heavy into history, however," Swain said. "We don't want to scare people away."

Elmwood certainly isn't scaring people away. The cemetery in South Memphis regularly draws school groups and out-of-towners for docent-led or audio walking tours, and its presentations by the Elmwood Players and programs by visiting historians are more popular than ever. It's all, according to Swain, in the spirit of Elmwood as not only a cemetery but a parkland.

"From its earliest days in the mid-19th century, Elmwood was designed as a resting place for the dead but also as a park for the living," Swain said. "Back then, on Sundays, everyone in Memphis came to Elmwood to tend to the graves, to picnic, to hear the music being played.

"But I'm ashamed to say I didn't come to Elmwood until I was in my 40s," Swain added. "My daughter and I went on a tour, and it knocked me out. I had no idea we had this place in Memphis. It's like an outside history book.

"When my last child went away to college, I started volunteering. When a job opened up, I thought, I want to be here more. So, that's what I do: organize tours, lead tours, help relatives find their loved ones in what we call the 'yard.' I do a little of everything. Visitors come by the busloads. The whole history of Memphis is in this one place."

Find out more about the Read In Peace Book Club at elmwoodcemetery.org or call 774-3212. You can contact Cookie Swain at cookie@elmwoodcemetery.org.

The club's next meeting is September 14th at 10 a.m. The book to be discussed: Memphian Molly Caldwell Crosby's The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History — the same epidemic that produced so many of the graves at Memphis' historic Elmwood Cemetery.

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