In his 2015 novel “Playing Custer,” Gerald Duff wrote a fictional account of the Battle of Little Bighorn from every imaginable 19th-century angle. At the same time, he presented 21st-century perspectives of that same event in an attempt to consider what he called “the mythic history of the United States.”
Once again reminding us that history is fiction, never truth, this year Duff gives us another look at that mythos in a novel that is as ambitious as it is bitingly cautionary.
The three sections of “Nashville Burning” play out over the last three Nashville Aprils of the 1960s.
“Kindling” considers the April of 1967, when riots broke out after a student-sponsored event at Vanderbilt University that brought together activist Stokely Carmichael, poet Allen Ginsberg, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and senator Strom Thurmond.
“Blaze” comments on the fire-riddled Nashville riots in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. King in April 1968.
“Ashes” examines Music City through the tentative calm of April 1969, after the riots of the two previous years.
There aren’t many pages devoted to the four historical figures at the book’s center. The strength of “Nashville Burning” is that it doesn’t attempt to replicate historical figures so much as it succeeds in re-creating — with a satirical gaze backwards — a fictional world for those real characters to inhabit as supporting characters.
The Vanderbilt University Department of English serves as springboard for caustic commentary on indigenous Old South entitlement and aspiration. The same might be said for the equally satiric examination of indigenous New South entitlement and aspiration in North Nashville. The Vanderbilt IMPACT Symposium of 1967 and the Music City Magic Fingers Massage Salon, the novel argues, provide their patrons with the same sort of amenities.
The principal guide through this “nighttown” of events is Ronald Alden, assistant professor of English. Equally ambitious, he and his wife, Lily, are more preoccupied with the noisome twittering of the songbirds outside their windows than they are with their three young children. Lily struggles for acceptance in Vanderbilt’s social strata. Ronald has lots of papers to grade, lots of senior faculty to impress and lots of coeds to feign disinterest in. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Ronald wants to discover the best of all possible worlds for himself, but he’s simply too desperate ever to do so. He lacks Candide’s ingenuousness.
In North Nashville there are different guides, yet with the same desperation. There are clients to be serviced at Music City Magic Fingers Massage Salon. There are robberies to instigate and then bungle. There are houses that will catch fire in both parts of town as a result of different feelings of entitlement and the same frantic ambition.
Secondary characters lend vivid — and wicked — texture to the Nashville tapestry Duff has woven. Would-be musicians and desperate housewives cross paths.
Commenting on all of this from separate vantage points are Greg Donaldson, senior honors major, and Minnie, cook at the Vanderbilt chancellor’s house, who simply wants to do her job despite the fundamental foolishness raging around her.
Late in “Nashville Burning,” Miss Lurleen complains about all the birds “hollering” in downtown Nashville. Her boss tells her: “Honey, it’s birds all over Nashville this time of year. Singing their fool heads off. They don’t know no better, and they don’t care where they are, downtown or out in the trees and bushes. They just pop open their damn beaks and sing.”
Duff believes that all that “singing” ought to have a definable purpose. That’s the conundrum facing most of the characters that populate his funny, scabrous and formidable new novel.
Steven Whitton is a recently retired Professor of English.