Will young Johnny Malloy find answers to his most perplexing questions–why is he here; is God for real; why won’t his girlfriend have sex with him–and learn to stay out of trouble, or will he remain a hopeless delinquent? Growing up would be challenging, anyway, for a kid like Johnny. Confused and self-absorbed, he secretly feels detached and different. He pretends, however–with results that range from heartrending to hilarious–to be like everyone else. Add a judgmental priest, a menacing nun, a controlling mother, and a frustrating girlfriend, and his challenges grow exponentially. In The Great Pretender, a delightful coming of age novel set in the deep south of the mid-twentieth century, a precocious adolescent meets these trials with courage, defiance and humor.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The 40s and 50s were fascinating times in the US. The tail end of the Depression, World War II, the hopeful, if naive ideas of post-war America–all would set the stage for the renaissance of the 60s. More importantly for me, it was the time and place of my coming of age.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Most of my characters were plucked right out of my life. Though in many cases, largely reconstructed, these characters had two commonalities: they served to assist the growth of the main character, as well as illustrate prevailing attitudes and beliefs in the deep South of the mid-twentieth century.
Sound and Fury
It was sometime in 1942 that I discovered I was different. In what way, exactly, I could not have said, but the feeling itself was painfully clear: like a child left behind by aliens that my parents mistook for their own.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this epiphany occurred just after I discovered other people. Awakening abruptly, I found myself in the midst of a garrulous gathering of folks in a place called Meridian, Mississippi. Quickly, my four-year-old eyes discerned that these people were nothing like me at all. And yet, they were “family,” mama said, and indeed, they all seemed to live in my home.
As it turned out, there were actually only six of us (my mother, father, sister grandmother, Uncle Henry and I) who slept and ate in our house every day. The rest of these characters-a deep south gumbo of uncles, aunts, cousins, step-siblings, ex-spouses, friends and a handful of undetermined status-were present, less often, individually, perhaps, but collectively, almost around the clock.
By ones and twos, this curious throng arrived and departed continuously- especially on weekends. They came, they hugged, they talked, they laughed, they wept, they ate and/or drank and then left-only, in many cases, to come back and do it all over again. They might stay ten minutes or stay the night. A stranger observing our home that year might have guessed he was witnessing a family reunion or a wake-one that curiously never ended.
If all that seems odd, consider still another strange aspect of this intriguing pageant: most of these people parading in and out of our home wore fascinating uniforms. Here was Uncle Ralph in khaki and brown, an outfit resplendent with brass insignia and impressive, multicolored ribbons. There was Uncle JD in his spiffy, starched whites, blue kerchief tie and perky, immaculate white cap. And look, here was Uncle Fred in my favorite-a blue, red and white costume as dazzling as a Christmas Nutcracker. Not to be outdone, even Aunt Maude wore a grey uniform trimmed in red, signifying, she would inform me later, her position with the American Red Cross.
The old Malloy home (it had been my father’s parents’ home before it was ours) resounded with an extraordinary vitality. At the time, however, I assumed this intensity was typical of human behavior, and I could not have been more delighted. After all, I received lots of attention. Our manic visitors would invariably hug me or tousle my head and rave about how much I had grown-even if they’d just seen me the day before. Then they might give me a peppermint or a stick of Juicy Fruit, or maybe even a nickel (indeed, those who’d had a nip or two might even spring for a quarter). And because they were all “company,” (not to mention “family”) mama usually had snacks on the dining room table-nuts, candy, chips and dips, or even those little sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
Like the movies of that era, scenes in our home were often accompanied by 1940s music-especially the big band variety. We didn’t have a record player, but who needed one when we had radio? Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and the Andrews Sisters set the mood for my early life story-and for plenty of dancing, too.
And oh, how my mama loved to dance. For “Babs,” dancing was right up there with silk stockings, Chanel Number Five and black walnut ice cream. Give her a shot of Early Times bourbon on a Saturday night, and she was transformed into Ginger Rogers. Never mind if no one else was dancing, mama was going to ‘cut a rug’-even if she had to do it alone. Sometimes she could lure my introverted father onto the floor, sometimes not. If it wasn’t past my bedtime, she was just as delighted to dance with me. Charleston, jitterbug, tango, waltz-she was good at them all, and eventually, I would be, too. In the meantime, I was thrilled to dance with her.
But dancing was not the main attraction at our house in that magical time. Nor even all that great music. No, our family’s favorite pastime in 1942 was lively conversation, especially around our big kitchen table. Take any Friday or Saturday night, add a half dozen relatives or friends and bottle of cheap bourbon whiskey, and the old Malloy home came alive. Raucous laughter, maudlin tears, passionate arguments-in the dark of my adjacent room I heard them all and was secretly enchanted. Now and then, mama or one of my “aunts” or “uncles” would come in to check on me, and I would pretend to be asleep. How lucky I was to have this family, I thought. Weren’t these people simply the grandest? I could not wait to grow up and be just like them.
Meanwhile, I knew I wasn’t like them at all. They seemed to share some secret wisdom that no one had bothered to reveal to me. They knew-well, how to be in the world, and I did not. But, wait-maybe they’d never find out. Perhaps I could pay close attention, learn to mimic their behavior and pretend to be one of them.
Little by little, I came to comprehend what all the excitement was about: everyone was overwrought because our country was “at war.” We were fighting the “Japs” and the “Krauts” in a place called “Oversees.” These bad guys had done some terrible things, and we were mad as hell about it. Mad enough, in fact, that most of the men could hardly wait to join the fight against them. My uncles Fred, JD and Ralph, as we have seen, were already in uniform, and my father (“Babe”) and Uncle Henry would have been, too, if only they had been able.
Daddy and Uncle Henry were both turned down by the armed services, because they were something called “fore-eff.” Later I would learn that-at forty-plus-they were both simply too old for war, not to mention that neither had very good eyesight (in fact, the lenses in Uncle Henry’s glasses looked as thick as the bottoms of “CoCola” bottles). On top of all that, my father had a family to support-mama, me and my baby sister, Ida Rose.
Still, the Malloys were well represented in the war, and not only on my father’s side. My mother’s younger brother (my Uncle), Barry had also joined up, much to her conflicting anxiety and pride (he was, in her eyes, still a baby), and was presently in flight school in the Army Air Corps.
It is difficult to convey the palpable omnipresence of the phenomenon that was World War II. From the beginning (or at least my awakening), the war touched every aspect of our lives. When my parents were not congregating with friends and family to talk about the war-family members serving, troop deployments, battles, victories, losses, injuries and deaths-they were gathering around the Philco console radio in the living room to hear Edward R. Murrow or Robert Trout tell us how the conflict was going.
If people chanced to forget about the war for a moment, there was always something to yank them back into its all-consuming reality. Everywhere in Meridian, it seemed, there were signs and posters (“Uncle Sam Needs You” or “Buy U.S. War Bonds”). Shoppers complained about the shortage of ration stamps they needed to buy groceries and gasoline. Scrap metal drives to help the war effort were always in progress. And the newsreels at the movies (indeed, many of the movies, themselves) were almost entirely about the war.
SOMETIMES THE WAR HIT CLOSE TO HOME
In the front windows of neighborhood homes, there were stars representing each family’s involvement in the war: a White or Silver star meant a family member was serving in the armed services; a Gold star signified that a family member had been killed in the war. There was nothing sadder than noticing that a White star had been replaced by a Gold one.
Mrs. Morton, one of our next-door neighbors, had two Silver stars in her front window-one for her husband, Pete, another for their son, Pete Jr., whom we all knew as Sonny. Most days, she, like half the neighborhood, was waiting by her mailbox when the mailman arrived, hoping for a letter from a loved one. Very often, my mama or daddy would wave to Mrs. Morton and ask if she’d heard from Pete or Sonny. Most days, she’d just wave back and say, “nothing today.” If she did get a letter, she might open and read it right on the spot, then walk over and share some of it with them.
It was all a mystery to me. What was the big deal with these letters? Why were they so important? Mr. Morton and Sonny had only been gone a couple of months. I mean, I really liked Sonny a lot (sometimes he played catch with me), but I wasn’t worried about him. If anything, I was envious. In my eyes, he was a hero-like Captain Marvel or the Green Hornet, except that I knew him personally.
It was Claude Junior (in Mississippi, Claw-joonya) Hobbs, a kid from down the street, who fractured my innocence and provided one of my earliest epiphanies.
“You hear about Sonny?” He was half out of breath, apparently having run all the way from his home to our front yard.
“Sonny next door?” I said, perplexed. Of course I knew about Sonny. He was somewhere Oversees fighting Japs.
“Yeah, Sonny,” Claude Jr. said, as if there were no other Sonnys on the planet, “he’s dead.”
“No, he’s not,” I said, “he’s Oversees.” Stupid ClaudeJunior. Thinks if he hasn’t seen someone for awhile, they must be dead.
“Yeah, I know,” he said, wiping his sleeve across a runny nose, “But now, he’s dead. He got hisself killed over there.”
“Did not,” I protested, unable to grasp what he seemed to be saying.
“Did too, I heard my mama tellin’ somebody on the phone.”
“Well, she’s wrong,” I said, sacrilegiously. Parents were never wrong, were they?
I turned and ran-up the steps and into the house. When I got to my room, my heart was pounding, and I thought I might cry. I pictured Sonny just before he left to go Oversees. In his new starched khaki uniform and his funny looking hat, he had looked older and somehow wiser than his 18 years. In fact, he had looked like a different person.
“What kind of hat is that?” I asked. He was sitting on a lawn chair in the Morton’s back yard, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. From a radio on the back porch, a big band was playing “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.”
“S’called a cunt cap,” Sonny said lazily, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
“A cunt cap? Why do they call it that?
“Because it looks like…well, that’s another story.”
“What story is that?”
“A story,” he chuckled, “for another time.”
He had seemed wistful that day before his departure. Not sad, maybe, but reflective, a lot quieter that the Sonny I knew.
“Wanna play catch, Sonny?”
“Don’t have time right now, little buddy,” he said, with an exaggerated wink, “got a hot date.”
He meant Mary Lou Caskey, the pretty red-haired girl who had been his sweetheart forever. He had even given her his graduation ring to wear around her neck while he was gone.
“But you’re leaving tomorrow, right?”
“That I am, Johnny boy.” He chugged a last swallow, got up to leave and gave my arm a squeeze. “But we’ll do it again soon as I get back.”
“When do you think you’ll come back,” I said, as he headed inside.
“Soon as I can,” he said, turning back. “See you in the movies, kiddo.”
That was the last time I saw him. He had left early the next morning. Next thing we heard he was some place in the Pacific. That’s all anyone knew-even Mrs. Morton.
And now, he was dead? Catch-playing, hair-combing, fag-smoking, finger-snapping, ukulele-playing Sonny Morton was dead? Was no longer breathing? Would never be back? I could not get my head around it.
But wait. Maybe we wasn’t dead. What if Claude Jr. was wrong? What if he had not heard what he thought he heard? That was it-it was all a big mistake. I bolted from my room, ran down the hall and found my mother in the kitchen.
“Is Sonny dead?” I blurted.
Her pained expression gave it away before she uttered a word. And now I could not stop the tears. “No, no,” I said over and over, and she held me for a long time.
UNCLE BARRY AND AUNT LAUREEN
It was only a short time later that I met my Uncle Barry (mama’s younger brother). Before then, I had been introduced to at least a dozen uncles, not realizing that in our family, any older close friend of mama’s or daddy’s was automatically granted “uncle” or “aunt” status. But Barry, mama said, “is a real uncle.”
Now I was certainly fond of my other real uncles; the aforementioned Henry, Ralph, Fred and JD (all on my father’s side of the family) treated me with affection, and
I was in awe of their striking military uniforms. But when young Barry appeared in his Army officer attire, the favorite uncle contest was over. Barry was glamorous and exciting-a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and soon to be a fighter pilot. He was young enough-not yet twenty-one-that at some subterranean level I could connect with him. Perhaps more importantly, our physical resemblance was striking. Every time I saw him, it was as if I were seeing myself sixteen years in the future. I might easily have been his son-and best of all, he treated me that way.
“How’s it goin,’ sport?” he said one day, lifting me up on his knee, “you decided yet?” He had a scent that was unique to him, I noticed-some subtle blend of cigars and whiskey and Aqua Velva aftershave. I thought: This is the way I’ll smell one day.
“Army or Navy? Which one you gonna join?”
“The Army Air Corps,” I said, enthusiastically, “just like you.”
“Good man,” Uncle Barry said, “I can tell from the look in your eyes you’ll make a great pilot.”
And just that suddenly I had a new fascination with all things aeronautical-one that would last well beyond the war. I began to save pictures of military aircraft-fighter planes, bombers, transport planes; I drew pictures of fighter planes in action-American P-38s downing Japanese Zeros. In war movies, I imagined Uncle Barry in heroic pilot roles.
Barry’s visit that summer of 1942 was all too brief (perhaps just a weekend); it was, after all, wartime, and personal time was precious. And yet in those fleeting moments we spent together, I formed impressions of him that would last a lifetime.
In a different manner altogether, just after the war, the same could be said of Barry’s new wife, the gorgeous Laureen when he brought her to Meridian to meet the family. Aunt Laureen would be the first woman I ever saw-as we said in the South-“buck naked.” Surely it was honest mistake. Impossible, wasn’t it, that I was already exhibiting the kind of sexual inquisitiveness that would later complicate my life? But there it was, or rather, there she was, totally exposed when I barged unannounced, and innocently, I believe, into the family bathroom.
She had just stepped out of the bath and was drying her hair when I burst through the door. She froze, hands in mid-air as she glanced up at me, eyes wide as banjoes. In that ephemeral moment-it could not have been more than two seconds, before I said “excuse me” and hastily shut the door-I snapped a mental photograph that would be with me forever.
Oh my god. I had no frame of reference, but it seemed to my still-embryonic mind that Aunt Laureen embodied the ideal female form. Indeed, perhaps I would later compare all female bodies to the slim, supple, spectacular one etched in mind that day. Had I possessed the language to describe my experience, I might have said it was more impressive than a virgin view of the Grand Canyon and the aurora borealis combined.
During their short visit, Barry and Laureen slept on a rollaway bed in the living room. While they were out I sneaked into the room, just for a look around. Could the handful of foil packages on the bedside table be some kind of candy? Chewing gum? One of the circular packages was empty, but I opened one of the remaining half dozen and discovered an exotic object. It was made of rubber, and-once I unrolled it- appeared to be an odd-looking balloon.
So, of course, I blew it up. Then I unwrapped and inflated the others and hung them all from branches on the big pecan tree in our backyard. I had not thought out my action; it just seemed the obvious thing to do-a celebration of Barry and Laureen’s visit, as it were, something they probably planned to do themselves.
Mama had a different view altogether.
“Oh-my-god,” she exclaimed when she saw the balloons, “JohnnyMalloy!”
“Yes m’am,” I answered, suspecting from her tone that the joy and gratitude I had perhaps expected might not be forthcoming.
“Did you put those…those things up on the tree?” she said, her eyes darting back and forth between our adjacent neighbors’ back yards.
“Yes m’am,” I said, still pleased with myself, even if mama was not.
“Well, you get up there and take them down this instant,” she said, then under her breath, “god – all – mighty – damn.”
Mama seemed both angry and embarrassed, and I had he feeling I had done something terribly wrong. About what, I had no clue, and mama never did explain- except to chastise me for “taking things that don’t belong to you.” But later that night when she told Uncle Barry (as I lay listening in my adjacent room), he thought it was hilarious. In fact, he would tell that story many times through the years. Barry had loved my gesture- just as I had expected he would.
But that would all happen a few years later. Meanwhile, I was busy discovering the universe. Up to this point, my just budding life was pretty much limited to things I could do around the house-or at least in our immediate neighborhood. Like most families in our circle, we had no money for extravagant entertainment (it was, after all, the tail end of the depression). In fact, we didn’t even own a car. So, if we went anywhere, we walked (well, except for my baby sister, Ida Rose, who rode in her carriage)-usually the half-mile to downtown Meridian. You see, my mama’s idea of entertainment then was window shopping on a Sunday afternoon, especially at the upscale department stores like Alex Loeb and Marks-Rothenberg. She liked window shopping on Sundays precisely because all the stores were closed. As she put it: “When the stores are closed, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have any money.”
Personally, I hated window shopping. All things considered, I might have preferred eating mama’s dreaded liver and onions-or even swallowing a dose of milk of magnesia. But sometimes these Sunday treks wound up at Beeman’s Pharmacy where we each got a nickel ice cream cone at the fountain-and I could have any flavor I liked. So, I knew-even at four-that sometimes the end justifies the means.
Now and then our outings included a matinee movie at the majestic Temple Theater. It might be one of those sticky romance movies that mama tended to favor. But it was just a likely to be a mystery or one of those “movies for the whole family” (mama always tried to be democratic). Regardless of the movie, I knew there would always be cartoons, a newsreel and our family ritual: In the dark we shared illicit cookies or fudge that mama had made at home. There was no way we could afford “those ridiculously expensive refreshment stand confections.” But who cared? Mama’s goodies were better anyway.
And so my life went in 1942-trying to figure out how I fit in, confined to perhaps a half-mile radius, a small handful of diversions and a still nebulous awareness that there might be anything more. So, imagine my surprise and delight when mama announced we were taking a train trip to Atlanta, Georgia-just the two of us!
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