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Homecoming Visit 

Hammond native James Wilcox returns to the mythical hometown of his earlier work with his latest novel, Heavenly Days.

Going home after a number of years away is never easy -- even when it's a place of your own creation. After a long absence, novelist James Wilcox returns to Tula Springs. It's a little burg just across Lake Pontchartrain not far from the Mississippi border, and one you'll never find on a map. Heavenly Days is the result of Wilcox's homecoming.

It isn't a nostalgic reunion. Instead of simply catching up with town folk from his previous works, Wilcox presents new characters and a fresh viewpoint from Lou Jones, the novel's main character. After all, Tula Springs never was a sleepy Southern hamlet characterized by stereotypically peculiar Southerners; it is a small town, but like a larger metropolis, has a hyper-kinetic crossing of lives, which can both enhance and confuse its inhabitants. Jones fully experiences both effects.

Although she has a Ph.D. in music, Lou works as a receptionist at WaistWatch, a fundamentalist health center that specializes in, "shedding pounds for Jesus." The job pays her much more than teaching music theory did. Since she is middle aged, married and childless, the job allows her to continue paying a mortgage on a $295,000 house even though her husband, Don, is unemployed. If only he lived there with her. Due to an altercation at his parents' house across town with some renters, who are contemplating suing Don for violating their rights, he has been "standing guard there now for about six weeks or so, during which time Lou's noticed a definite improvement in their marital relations." Don doesn't show any signs of coming back.

For a while it didn't seem like Wilcox, a Hammond native and head of the creative writing program at Louisiana State University, would ever return to his Southern roots. After graduating from Yale in 1971, he spent the next 27 years living in New York City: the first seven as an editor in the publishing industry working to improve and promote others' work, and the last 20 creating his own. During this time, he published four novels set in Tula Springs, but the last one was in 1991 (Polite Sex), and his next two offerings took place in New York. But in 1998, he decided to return to the region as a visiting professor at Mississippi State University in Starkville. It was a move, he explains, that brought him closer, creatively as well as physically, to Southern culture.

"Living in Mississippi at the time I was writing this book was giving me a whole new look at the South," says Wilcox. "It had been at least eight years since I had written about it, so there was a sense of seeing it new. There's a difference between being in the South as opposed to writing about the South and living in New York City. Part of the adventure for me was to come back to Tula Springs. It was a challenge to me to deal with the effect of time in a place I had already written about."

Wilcox meets the challenge head on not only with Lou's economic situation, but with the town's changing cultural reality. Living with Don at his parents' house is Mrs. Ompala, who is the long-lost white mother of Don's parents' black maid, Alpha. Mother and daughter have some complicated issues, so this "regal woman of an uncertain age" moves in with Don. His parents live in Arizona, and Alpha now cleans Lou's house. She does little but collect a paycheck since "Lou never felt comfortable with the idea of a housekeeper." Even with this arrangement, she agonizes over Alpha's refusal to speak to her.

Further complicating matters for Lou: her attraction to Brother Moodie, the spiritual/exercise guru of WaistWatch; her painting over a handicap parking space for her boss, Maigrite, which has a town superintendent, Maigrite's husband, in an uproar; and a never-ending case of heartburn that she can only battle with a slew of evening Gibson cocktails and the occasional morning screwdriver. The outside pressure builds, but ultimately it's the inner turmoil that plagues her. If only, as Wilcox relates, "she could stop herself from wanting everyone to like her. She had read somewhere that this wasn't healthy, that it was more normal to have a lot of people think you were rotten."

Heavenly Days is a slender book with a hysterically frenzied plot, so many intriguing characters you'd need a program to keep track of them all, and an acutely self-aware heroine who represents a genuine person as uncomfortable as that may be. It is a complicated mess that conveys tenderness and compassion for its players without forcing an unrealistic resolution.

For Wilcox, it is a reflection of the human experience: "I think that's how life operates. We're not in a Jamesian, tightly controlled work of art with five characters interacting in a very refined manner all on the same social level. We're actually in this jumbled mixture with people from all sorts of walks of life and different economic backgrounds that we bump into, influence us, and have strange effects on our lives. Actually, a lot of my writing is saying 'no' to those closed Jamesian worlds."

click to enlarge "Living in Mississippi at the time I was writing this - book was giving me a whole new look at the South," - James Wilcox says of his latest work, Heavenly - Days.
  • "Living in Mississippi at the time I was writing this book was giving me a whole new look at the South," James Wilcox says of his latest work, Heavenly Days.
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