Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails, by Jim Dees

The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails, by Jim Dees (2016) is the memoir of a reporter's experiences as a rookie journalist in 1996 and 1997 working for the Oxford Mississippian in Oxford, Mississippi. After losing his job at the University of Mississippi, Dees turned to the Oxford newspaper in hopes of another vocation. He was 40 years old. The central focus of this book is about the efforts of the mayor and the city council of Oxford to erect a statue of William Faulkner, who lived in Oxford until his death in 1961.
Faulkner is actually a side-interest of this book. Although he is memorialized in the statue, he's not what the book is about. Rather, it's about small-town politics. It's about how Dees finds Oxford to be a quaint, eccentric, and also in certain paradoxical ways progressive small southern college town. I did not learn anything new about Faulkner from this book, and in fact a lot of what's presented as fact seems to be gossip and hearsay. We run into people who were according to their own testimonies Faulkner’s doctor or bootlegger. We have to take such information with grains of salt.
We learn a lot from this book about small-town politics, about pettiness in the ambition and the corruption of small-town politicians. I think Dees started out with the expectation that he would find Oxford a weird and off-the-wall town. He found what he wanted to find. The book is focused on a year which Dees takes as indicative of the pressures of the modern world on Oxford to expand, to build its infrastructure, to encourage tourism, and to take advantage of such attractions as it has on hand, such as Faulkner’s reputation. In the course of the book we run into other people who visit Oxford or who perform in nearby Tunica: Willie Nelson, James Brown. We learn a bit about Larry Brown the writer, and less about the writer Barry Hannah.
The Statue and the Fury has a fragmentary quality: it moves back and forth from reminiscences of people who knew Faulkner to discussions of the furor over the statue to interviews with country music stars to accounts of the visit to the town of the rap group 2 Live Crew and the controversy caused by their performance at a local nightclub. In general the book explores a small town grappling with its Southern heritage and seeking to move, tentatively, into the contemporary world.
Jim Dees was probably a good reporter, but he certainly took sides in the controversies he covered. He's an example of a person who sets himself in the company of famous writers and musicians and others as a way of certifying his own significance in the world. That's not such a bad thing. A lot of us do that.

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