Praised by the Washington Post as "Tennessee Williams . . . transposed to the twenty-first-century South," Nick White returns with a stunning short-story collection that tackles issues of masculinity, identity, and place, with a sharp eye for social commentary and a singular handling of character.
At first glance, the stories in Sweet and Low seem grounded in the everyday: they paint pictures of idyllic Southern landscapes, characters fulfilling their roles as students, wives, boyfriends, sons. But they are not what they seem. In these stories, Nick White deconstructs the core qualities of Southern fiction, exposing deeply flawed and fascinating characters--promiscuous academics, aging podcasters, woodpecker assassins, and lawnmower enthusiasts, among others--all on wildly compelling quests. From finding an elusive bear to locating a prized timepiece to making love on the grave of an iconic writer, each story is a thrilling adventure with unexpected turns. White's honest and provocative prose will jolt readers awake with its urgency.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The week before her flight, she records the twenty-fifth episode, this one about Arnie Greenlee. She's been avoiding the subject of Arnie since she started her podcast Rosemary Talks a few months after his death at the suggestion of her therapist, but now seems as good a time as any to mention him.
"While not a perfect man," she tells her listeners, "he was certainly an interesting one."
Arnie Greenlee was tall and rawboned, and sported the ugliest smile she'd ever seen. Big and beaverlike, his two front teeth jutted out from his full-lipped maw even when it was closed.
"Which wasn't often," she says in the dark studio. "My Arnie liked to talk."
The night Rosemary met him, at a sorority function in the late 1970s, she spotted his teeth from across the room and assumed they were fake-those outlandish ones you buy at gas stations during Halloween. She went closer to investigate, which led to a lively conversation, the best one she'd had all semester, which led to horseback riding on his parents' farm in Starkville the following Sunday, which led-eventually-to matrimony.
"So I guess," she adds, "my whole life sort of turned on a pair of buck teeth."
Her bimonthly podcast normally lasts thirty minutes and typically, until now, shies away from the personal. In past episodes, she's interviewed local artists and celebrities, including a Miss Mississippi from the 1980s who came out as a lesbian years after her reign. She's given unconditional support to the last abortion clinic in the state and thoughtful reactions to movies of the day and detailed critiques of popular books. She's proud of what she has created all by herself, but she doesn't kid herself: The show isn't very popular, only a hundred or so listeners subscribe to it on iTunes. The journalism department-where she tapes the show at the small private college in Jackson-doesn't seem too concerned with ratings. They're happy, she gathers, to have someone like her (a woman, a person in the community) using their equipment. Her involvement allows them to check important boxes about outreach and diversity for elusive grants they are always applying for.
And she enjoys the talking-something she picked up from her years of living with Arnie. In the studio, a small five-by-eight box of a room, she kills the lights and speaks. "Into the void," she tells people, when they ask-which isn't often. Sometimes, like now, when she is recording a show, she likes to visualize her listeners: a small but dedicated bunch. Educated and practical, mostly Southerners with quasi liberal leanings. She thinks of them as loyal to the bone. And so they will forgive her digressions on Arnie this one time, indulgent as they are.
Summing up a person's life is a tough business. You're bound up by simple nouns and verbs. "He was a doctor," she says. "A father, an amateur golfer." She pauses to think. "He recycled."
They lived a quiet life in Jackson, running marathons, collecting old Rolling Stone magazines. He was the type of man who enjoyed taking care of people-his patients at the clinic, their daughter, and-of course-her. He gave back. A lifelong member of the Lions Club. Served two terms on the PTA at Jackson Prep. Some would argue-not Rosemary-that his generosity proved to be his undoing. His plane was bound for Ecuador when it went down somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico. He was doing volunteer work for Doctors Without Borders.
"That was Arnie," she says. "Always on the go. Until, that is, he was gone."
Rosemary hasn't been on a plane since the accident.
"Yet here I go"-her voice coming out tinny-"off into the friendly skies. Think of me, dear ones."
Here, she ends the show, hoping the goodwill of her invisible audience will carry her through her upcoming travels.
What she leaves out of the podcast is the reason for her trip. Her daughter's marriage is in crisis. An old story, from what she can gather: Her son-in-law has stepped out with a coworker, says he's confused, maybe in love; her daughter is bewildered, in shock. "Don't come," Amy e-mailed Rosemary after Rosemary had forwarded possible trip itineraries. "It's too crazy here," her daughter went on to say. Rosemary can read between the lines, however. The girl obviously needs her mother.
Listening to Rosemary Talks, Hank can still picture him clearly: the man crouching on Hank's living-room floor and pricking Hank's finger, squeezing the blood out. He can see him dropping a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People onto Hank's coffee table and telling Hank, in all seriousness, how this book had changed his life. "And not just my life," he said, in his laughing way. "Think Donna Reed, think Frank Sinatra."
Hank never read it, so maybe the doctor was being honest for once.
Dr. Arnie Greenlee had many lovers in his life. Most of them were men, but according to Arnie, Hank was the only patient he ever took to bed. (Hank has his doubts about this: Arnie, dear as he was, couldn't be trusted, particularly in matters of the heart.) Their affair started a couple of years before his death, but the first time they met, the last thing on Hank's mind was sex. For one thing, Arnie was much older than what Hank normally went for. For another, Hank thought he was dying.
He blames his parents for this. Their clich and dated response to his coming out to them ("You're no son of ours!" they cried. "Sodomite!") sent him into an even more clich tailspin of drug-fueled sexual encounters at truck-stop bathrooms along the Natchez Trace and in dingy motels off interstate exits toward Memphis. Hank, fucking with complete and glorious abandon, stuck his prick in places he wouldn't have normally put a big toe, and eventually, his behavior caught up to him. He lost weight-twenty, thirty pounds just fell off. He pissed all the time. His face became riven with acne sores.
He thought it would be easier seeing a doctor he didn't know. He found Arnie's clinic on the Internet after a scattered search and made an appointment. Nodding, Dr. Greenlee listened to all of Hank's symptoms. Then one of his nurses took Hank's blood, ran some tests, and when the results came back the following week, he met with Hank in his big-windowed office, sucking on his big teeth. Hank found them suggestive, those teeth. They gave an otherwise plain appearance-pleated khakis, a red-checkered dress shirt, a pair of loafers-some much needed personality. Some bit of intrigue. If the doctor were smiling he would look roguish, much younger than the sprinklings of gray hair suggested. But he was not smiling. Instead, his face was devoid of all emotion, the professional look of doom.
"I got it, don't I? The bug," Hank said, before Arnie could speak. "Oh, damn, oh, damnit."
Arnie laughed. "No," he told Hank. "But your blood sugar is unusually high."
Hank blinked, the information not computing.
Arnie clarified: "You're diabetic."
No word had ever before rung so beautifully in Hank's ears. Diabetic-it was magical. A verse of poetry. As Arnie Greenlee rattled off how Hank was type 1 and needed insulin and should consider a healthy diet, Hank went somewhere else: He saw himself riding a bicycle through Jackson, without a helmet, legs akimbo, the sun on his back, not a care in the world. At some point during Arnie's spiel, Hank-so grateful-leaned forward and kissed the man square on the lips, their teeth bumping together.
"I'm sorry," Hank said, thoroughly embarrassed with himself. He stood up to leave.
But Arnie placed a hand on Hank's shoulder. "I should come over," he said, "and cook for you."
"Cook for me?"
"I don't think you understand what's ahead of you. Your whole lifestyle will have to change."
"My lifestyle." Hank smiled. "My parents will be so pleased."
They kissed again. And, later that night, when Arnie dropped by Hank's apartment, he did cook for him. Hank would remember the meal-saucy chicken adobo with boiled asparagus. The spices, the heat from the skillet he rarely used, the way the asparagus sopped up the juices when the chicken was gone. "Stalks of flavor," Arnie called them. He would remember so much about that first evening: Arnie walking him through how to give himself a shot of insulin in the belly before dinner and how, two hours later (after he had fucked Hank with wild abandon), he ensured that Hank checked his blood glucose. Perhaps more romantic than it should have been: naked Arnie Greenlee gently holding Hank's ring finger in his large meaty palm as if he were proposing marriage while he carefully, tenderly, eked out droplets of Hank's sugary blood onto a thin test strip. When Hank's BG came back as 119, Arnie grinned ear to ear. His teeth, Hank thought. Dear Lord, just look at them. But Arnie seemed unashamed of his wrecked mouth. Proud even. And he did look roguish, Hank decided. Like a pirate only recently gone to seed.
Soon Hank found himself relaxing into this new relationship. Arnie, who Hank always wagered was one part golden retriever, had a way of causing Hank to relax about so many things. After they became lovers, he was convinced to give up refined sugar. Then he started recycling. By the time he realized Arnie had a wife, he was-to his great surprise-relaxed about that too. He had no big designs on the doctor: The man was a placeholder, a bridge from his younger days of indiscriminate sex with whomever fell into his bed to his budding desire for something steadier and (may be) monogamous. But then Arnie got himself killed in a plane crash, and shit got complicated.
And now, as Hank listens to the wife's podcast, he closes his eyes and imagines the doctor at the moment of his demise. Midair, he's oblivious to the sound of engine trouble (even if there was such a thing) or those first few death rattles of turbulence. This is pure speculation, but giving into it makes Hank feel better about the situation somehow. He sees Arnie contained in his economy comfort seat, his face hidden behind a SkyMall magazine, looking at a glossy photograph of one of those braces you strap to your shoulders. He often talked of getting one. His posture had gotten so bad there at the end.
At her gate nearly two hours before takeoff, Rosemary is seated in a puke-colored chair bolted to the floor in front of a large window overlooking the tarmac. It's sunny out, and she's coated in buttery light, the kind that cooks you to sleep. She dozes, dipping her head again and again, when here comes Arnie walking toward her, all cottony around his edges. He's wearing a brown polo and a pair of powder blue chinos. He's slimmer than she remembers, and his eyes are deep green. So green. But, on second thought, she remembers, her Arnie had brown eyes.
She jumps awake.
"Sorry," the boy says, and steps back.
He's in his late twenties and looks nothing like Arnie. His teeth are perfect.
"I fell asleep," she says, and yawns. A feeling comes over her that perhaps she knows him. But no: This is wrong-it is he who seems to know her.
"I need to ask you . . . ask you something." His voice is soft-so soft that she has to lean forward in order to understand him, and that's when she notices it: trouble. She sees it all over his face. Her mind somersaults, working it out: probably not a terrorist (too preppy, too blond), definitely not a Hare Krishna (Did airports still have those?). But a con artist? A evangelical zealot worried about the fate of her eternal soul? Maybe. She rolls her hard-shell carry-on between them. What good it will do, she cannot say, but goddamn it, it makes her feel better.
"I'm listening," she says. "Shoot-I mean, um, speak."
He goes to, but the voice comes out slurred. He's dumbstruck and sways. Then his eyes roll back, and he topples to the ground at her feet. All very sudden: Maybe he's been drunk all along and she's just now noticed it. He was standing; now he's not. In the seconds that follow, she doesn't move. Stunned, she gazes about the airport. The people moving in front of her dash to the right and left, the clicking of their rolling suitcases trailing behind them. From somewhere above, an announcement blares, declaring the amounts of liquids allowed onboard. Behind her, she feels the window vibrate with the roar of an airplane taking off.
What happens next, she cannot explain. Moving quickly, she stoops down and pilfers his pockets like a madwoman. All those years working at her husband's clinic as his receptionist before she quit to raise Amy take over; she's in autodrive, not sure what she's looking for until, at last, she finds it clipped to his belt, the size of a pager. An insulin pump.
"Sugar!" she calls out. "The boy's a diabetic!"
And my husband's a doctor, she wants to add but doesn't. Arnie's dead, after all, and there's no power, she's learned, in widowhood.
Her shouting changes the atmosphere in the terminal. Almost immediately, everything slows. Travelers stop and gawk. Eventually, a fussy-looking airport official in a gray pantsuit and extravagant scarf trots over, saying something Rosemary cannot for the life of her understand, so she shoos the woman away.
"Honey, no," she says. "We've got to find him some glucose."
Now the airport attendant speaks briskly into her walkie- talkie.
Meanwhile, Rosemary returns to the boy's pants, searching. Arnie always told his diabetic patients to carry provisions with them for emergencies like this one. Maybe the boy's doctor made similar recommendations.
He's shaking all over and mumbling. She puts her ear to his lips, but the talk is nonsense.
"My watch, my watch," he says. But he isn't wearing one.
She places his lolling head in her lap and proceeds to go through his satchel, which is tangled about his stomach. He fights her on this, and so Rosemary has no other option: She slaps him. One quick pop on the cheek-she's repelled by how slick his skin feels, how amphibian. The slap works; he settles down.
She's vaguely aware of onlookers gathering around the two of them. Security guards muscle through, brandishing more walkie-talkies, repeating impressive-sounding codes.
Finally, she locates a cylinder of sugar tablets, grape flavored, in the outer pocket of his satchel. His mouth jerks open as she works one in.
"Chew," she tells him, and he does.
She gives him another, then another. After the fifth tablet, his shaking has calmed. Crumbles of purple sugar have collected in the corners of his mouth, and his wide face, blinking, is the face of a child just waking from a long nap.
They are hoisted to their feet and separated.
A small cart has appeared, and the guards usher the boy toward it, leaving her behind with the long-faced airport attendant. Suddenly, she comes to a conclusion. “I’m going with him,” she says.
The words are strange in her mouth. But what’s stranger, perhaps, is how no one objects. She’s allowed to sidle up onto the cart beside the boy, whom she doesn’t know from Adam. At the wheel of this contraption is an old Asian man who is all business, frowning as he spirits them through the airport in a flash of blinking lights. Along the way, the boy’s head finds a home on Rosemary’s shoulder. The faces they pass appear startled by the two of them. Rosemary lifts a hand to the audience and offers them, for no reason whatsoever, the queen’s wave, her trip—at least for the moment—all but forgotten.