"Somebody said that the third book a writer writes defines that writer. If it does, my third book certainly defines me — as definitely schizoid."
That may be Memphian John Pritchard overstating the case, but the fact remains: Sailing to Alluvium (NewSouth Books) is Pritchard's third in his series of novels featuring the character Junior Ray Loveblood of St. Leo in Mhoon County, down in the Mississippi Delta. But schizoid does indeed describe another of Pritchard's ongoing characters, Leland Shaw, a veteran of World War II who's returned to the Delta, and in Sailing to Alluvium he sits atop a silo convinced that he's behind enemy lines and pursued by a German army patrol. Shaw, in his first-person, close to stream-of-consciousness ledger entries, which make up the book's closing 100 or so pages, may be, as Pritchard described him, as psychotic as he can be in reaction to the war's horrors, but what of Junior Ray? He's still the outrageous, profanity-prone and part-time "diktective" readers know him to be, and this time he — and his "pardner," Voyd Mudd — want to know who killed Tombo Turnage, Farley Trout, and Steele "Froggy" Waters. And who is this Miss Attica Rummage of the Aunty Belles secret sorority? And were those homicides simply a case of mistaken identity — the true object of murderous hatred being Owen G. Brainsong II?
"I have discovered that I can take the flimsiest of premises and make it believable," Pritchard said in a phone interview, and he's right. But he was equally right to point out the double-action strategy in all three of his Junior Ray novels: the profane smack up against the sublime. Too highfalutin to say? Set most anything out of the mouth of Junior Ray next to the voice of Leland Shaw, and you'll see in Sailing to Alluvium what Pritchard means. But Junior Ray's no real meanie. He's just telling it as he sees it, and what he sees is a sorry state (Mississippi) of affairs (farm mechanization, casino gambling, lingering class consciousness) and seismic changes. And as Pritchard also noted by phone: "I wanna give 'em [readers] sort of, as Zorba [the Greek] would say, the 'full catastrophe.' But it's so great to be proud of what you've done. [Pritchard's referring to his Junior Ray books in general, with a fourth in the works.] That's not always the case."
As it wasn't the case when Pritchard — who taught English for years at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis after growing up in Tunica, a stint doing construction in New Orleans, a trip to Cuba to see Castro and his revolution, a brief career as copyboy and news clerk at The New York Times, a job penning lyrics in Nashville (which won him a gold record), and another job composing advertising jingles in Memphis — performed as a deputy sheriff in Metro Nashville/Davidson County. That's where, Pritchard said, "I tell you, I saw a lot. I learned a lot." And to confirm that Junior Ray's law-enforcement antics aren't far off the mark, Pritchard elaborated on his deputy days:
"We were all untrained and forbidden to arrest anyone. We were transporters, turnkeys, you name it, except when there was a prison escape — usually not a very dramatic one. The guy'd generally put on a baseball cap and just walk out with the visitors. Then we'd have to strap on all this armament and try to find him. First time that happened, I was terrified we would find him. Then I realized there was no chance of that. Shoot, there I was chasing some guy who'd just gotten out of prison. The three of us deputies in the front seat, me in the middle, of the official vehicle: a station wagon. The blue light didn't work. The radio didn't work. We had to make phone calls at a pay phone. The driver was the drummer on Hee Haw."
Now that Pritchard's a late-career novelist — he'll turn 76 in January — he's often asked about literary influences. William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, William Alexander Percy, Erskine Caldwell? "Of course," Pritchard said. Plus, James Agee and Thomas Wolfe, and perhaps Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. More importantly, Al Capp and Chester Gould, Pritchard added.
"No longer do I read novels very much," Pritchard admitted. "I mean I look in them, but I like other books ... books about language, anthropology, cosmology, anything. People ask what I'm reading, and I say Seinfeld reruns, The Sopranos. As I sometimes say about myself: I'm deeply shallow."
No, Pritchard is not. But his tour to promote Sailing to Alluvium does have its demands.
"I can't say enough wonderful things about them. They work like I don't know what," Pritchard said of his publisher. "But, God, this book tour ... they've got a list longer than a night in jail!"
John Pritchard will be launching that tour with a signing and reading at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, October 17th, 5:30-7 p.m.