It’s September, but the major months for authors with Memphis ties were this past July and August. Just as major: their nationally known publishers.
July saw the release of Memphian Mark Greaney’s Support and Defend (Putnam), an action-suspense novel and the fourth of Greaney’s thrillers featuring characters made famous by his super-best-selling co-author (on the first three novels), Tom Clancy. With Clancy’s death last year, Support and Defend carries on the Clancy franchise with Greaney as sole author, but the Clancy characters continue. This time, it’s Dominic Caruso (nephew of President Jack Ryan) at the center of the action, and Greaney isn’t overlooking a single world headline. An ultra-secret U.S. intelligence unit, Israeli special forces, Mideast terrorists: Greaney’s got the world’s political hotspots covered, and he’s as fast-paced at it as ever.
Quinn Colson, in The Forsaken (Putnam), is hoping he has it covered. He’s the sheriff of fictional Tibbehah County, Mississippi, and if you think there’s a world of trouble in Support and Defend, you don’t know the small town of Jericho, located in Mississippi hill country. That’s where you’ll find Sheriff Colson digging into a cold case involving the sexual assault on two white teenagers back in 1977 (and the murder of one of them) and the lynching of a black man accused of the crimes. It’s also where you’ll find Colson and his chief deputy, Lillie Virgil, defending themselves for a shootout that just might put them not only out of office but behind bars. The Forsaken, released in July, is the latest Quinn Colson crime novel from Ace Atkins, an Oxford resident whose characters have a habit of heading north — a hundred miles north to Memphis — as they do in The Forsaken. (An early key scene between one very unsavory character and another is set inside the Denny’s downtown on Union.) And again on the subject of franchises: That was Ace Atkins this past May who came out with another of his Spenser detective novels, Robert B. Parker’s Cheap Shot, also from Putnam.
If July was a double-header, consider the month of August a triple play. That’s when we saw the official publication date of native son (and onetime Memphis magazine contributor) Hampton Sides’ latest book, a second novel from University of Memphis creative-writing instructor Courtney Miller Santo (winner of Memphis magazine’s fiction contest in 2012), and the debut novel from Stephen Schottenfeld, who taught at Rhodes College before moving to the University of Rochester in New York state.
Santo’s Three Story House (Morrow) and Schottenfeld’s Bluff City Pawn (Bloomsbury) may be worlds apart in tone, but both take place in contemporary Memphis. Then again, they’re worlds apart geographically and by gender: Three Story House is set on Memphis’ South Bluffs and focuses on the lives of three women from one extended family, all of them well into adulthood, all of them at a turning point in their lives. Bluff City Pawn is set in a commercial but derelict block of Lamar, a livelier stretch of Summer, and an upscale neighborhood in Germantown, but this time it’s the lives of three brothers, well into their own adulthoods and in the process of making then losing, through not-so-brotherly in-fighting, a fortune. Different these two books certainly are. Gratifying to see, though, the city as source for such strong storytelling.
For truly epic storytelling, however, turn to Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Doubleday). Memphis is nowhere in sight. The Arctic is, in this magnificent retelling of a polar expedition that began in 1879 and ended … it would be unfair — to Sides, to readers — to say how the 33-man crew of the USS Jeannette ended up years later after sailing out of San Francisco, up the Pacific Ocean, and through the Bering Strait in their search for the North Pole. I will say that for those who know Sides’ Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and Hellhound on His Trail (on the life of James Earl Ray), this is Sides at his narrative-driven best.
Another native Memphian, Jay Schoenberger, wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into when, just out of high school, he signed up for a month-long wilderness skills course conducted by the National Outdoor Leadership School. The course took place in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, and for this young man used to the flatlands of West Tennessee, the mountain landscape was a revelation. It was also “a vision” leading to his life’s work: concern for the natural environment.
Schoenberger lives today in San Francisco and works, as his friends sometimes rib him, “tilting at windmills.” He’s sold solar electric systems. He’s invested in renewable energy businesses. And he’s developed wind farms. But he and his wife head for the Sierra Nevada every chance they get.
Here’s betting their backpacks include copies of I Am Coyote: Readings for the Wild (published in June by Kimbrough Knight Publishing), Schoenberg’s hand-picked collection of wilderness writings lifted from the works — fiction and nonfiction, poetry and letters — of dozens of noteworthy authors, including Herman Melville, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Gilbert, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, and Edward Abbey. There are surprises here, however: among them, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Jack Kerouac. And closer to home, if your hometown’s Memphis on the Mississippi: John Ruskey.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ruskey’s work (Water Music and River Gator), Schoenberger clues you in in a brief note in I Am Coyote: “Described by many as the John Muir of the Lower Mississippi, John Ruskey has arguably done more than any other person to demonstrate that a wilderness worthy of America’s highest conservation ideals exists right under our noses in the flowing form of the mighty Mississippi.”
With this collection, Schoenberger has conservation in mind too and what he calls “the ageless teaching the wilderness affords.” Joy and serenity; irritations and dangers; feelings of transcendence: You’ll find them all in Schoenberger’s anthology.
As he writes in his introduction, the compilation (foreword by Bill McKibben; illustrations by Peter Arkle) began as a loose collection that Schoenberger packed along with his camping gear. He’d read through these pages at night. He’d share them with fellow campers in the tradition of communal storytelling. The goal, in Schoenberger’s words: “to capture the singularity and profundity of the wilderness experience.” The initial inspiration: Wallace Stegner’s “wilderness idea,” an idea made famous in Stegner’s “The Wilderness Letter” of 1960 and reproduced as the penultimate entry in I Am Coyote.
But the book that Jay Schoenberger draws from more often than any other isn’t likely candidate Walden by Henry David Thoreau (though Thoreau’s here). It isn’t a work by Jack London or John Muir either (though words from both writers can be found in I Am Coyote too). It is that masterpiece of South Pole exploration by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World, which Schoenberger excerpts a total of six times — a fitting title to book-end its polar opposite, Hampton Sides’ equally grueling test of human endurance, In the Kingdom of Ice.