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“Y’all Party?” Reflections of an Ex-Pat Reprobate

We were camping with my dad and his old Coast Guard buddy Larry beside a big rock about a half a mile from the Charlotte International Speedway where we were going to watch the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. My new girlfriend, N., and I had just driven from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we met in grad school, and, though she was also from South Carolina, this was her first introduction to my family.

I’d grown up around racetracks—my dad and all his six brothers were fanatical about NASCAR—but I had drifted far away from the Southern world in which I had grown up, “unbuckling that old Bible belt and lighted out for some desert town,” as Gram Parsons put it.

Actually I’d never fit in in the first place. Was terrible with cars, sucked at sports, and liked to read. Then I found drugs in high school. I grew my hair long and taunted the authorities. I took acid, smoked weed, drank anything I could get, and took pills. Cops pulled me over and called me “fag.” I was not the Southern man Neil Young sang about.

And this was the 1980s, not the 1960s. So, I went as far as I could and ended up in Albuquerque, where I lived many years without having a car at all. But when I met N., we started to reminisce as only two exiles can do.  We spent our first date making out and drinking beer as Rusty Wallace won the Bristol race in the background.

The fact that she was willing to camp out to watch a race—something my mom had never done—made my dad immediately like N. And as we settled into the campground the night before the race and met our neighbors, it was clear that no matter how far I had come from stock car racing, I was still deeply invested in the predominant form of Southern recreation on display.

“Y’all party?” one of the neighbors asked, holding up a jar of moonshine.

How many times had I heard the question with its particularly Southern inflection and its insistence on the verbal nature of the word party? It meant a number of things: most obviously, right then, it meant “Do you want to drink moonshine?” but it was a broader question that could potentially include weed, prescription pills, coke, or meth. The best synonym was getting fucked up.

The fact that we partied brought N. and I together as much as our common home state. She was on a date with my friend the night we met. They stopped by my house to smoke some weed, and later, at the bar, after a few shots of whiskey, we ditched him and ended up at my place for another bowl. It was Friday night; we made a date for Sunday—to watch the race.

What you ingest is as important as where you are from.

N. and I had both calmed down since our own wilder days—I was teaching ancient Greek and she was studying cultural studies and would soon start teaching—but we were each happy to find someone else out in Albuquerque who understood the peculiar Southern inflection of our intoxication. It’s not that New Mexicans didn’t get loaded. But like the Irish or the Czechs, or the Russians, Southerners have their own particular meanings imbued in inebriation.

Drinking sent Southern Baptists to hell for generations; only doomed drunkards like Pappy Finn drank. Or fallen upper-crust “whiskeypalians” like Jason Compson III (the father of the family, as featured in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury) whose drinking is a sign of dissolution, finding in the decanter a “mausoleum of hope and desire” even more potent than the watch he gives his son. Faulkner himself is often portrayed in this light, as in the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink, which presents a fictionalized version of the author hiding from Hollywood screenwriting in drink.

But the illicit nature of alcohol and other recreational drugs creates a different literary possibility as well.

Audra Lim recently wrote an article about the drug use in Taipei, the new novel by the “voice” of the digital native, millennial generation Tao Lin, in which Lim argued that “Fifty years ago, it was still possible to believe that drugs could free our minds and transform the world; the chemical evangelist had not yet become a figure of total ridicule.” The style of Tao Lin’s writing keeps us at a distance, causing Lim to ask: “What is Paul [the main character] feeling when he gets fucked up? If he’s not taking drugs for pleasure, or self-transformation, then why take them at all?” Her answer is that he takes them, essentially, in the same way that the dissolute patron of the crumbling Compson clan does—to deal with a world he can neither understand nor change.

In an essay for Slate, Katie Roiphe wondered what had happened to all the bohemian writers like “Dylan Thomas stumbling out of the White Horse Tavern, Mary McCarthy sleeping with three men in one day, and Norman Mailer getting into brawls.” She notes that the current crop of writers “left parties with their wives, at a reasonable hour; were warmly engaged with their children; lived in brownstones; cooked lovely risottos. They were not interested in breaking the conventional rules of upstanding or healthy behavior. They were living, in short, like the bankers or lawyers next door, or wanting to.”

Well, there aren’t really any brownstones down South, and there might not be lawyers and bankers next door. There are, however, writer-professors filling up Oxford, but, because they are inherently outcast, the great, wasted Southern writers have never really been considered bohemians at all—except for, perhaps, Truman Capote because of that black-and-white party and all. Or rather, the Southern bohemians, like Capote, had all fled the South. The ones who remain are outlaws.

In Southern literature, if nowhere else, we can, perhaps, still find the wastrel as hero, the drunkard who goes outside of polite society and brings back the truths the rest of us hide from, the man mad enough to turn recreation into re-creation. That is partly because Southerners still have what Southerners insist on calling “manners,” even if they only inadvertently invoke Flannery O’Connor’s use of the term. It is this closed-in space of social norms that presents the necessity of physical and psychological state outside of them. In literature, film, and, maybe, if we wish hard enough, even in life, the drunken Southern sage can find grace in being wasted.

This well-greased grace is one of the reasons we love our stories of hard-living Southern writers almost as much as we love their work. When I asked those with whom I am acquainted on Facebook to name their favorite drunkard or druggie from Southern literature, most people named writers rather than characters. Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, and Harry Crews were each as famous for their own booze-fueled antics as they were for those of their many besotted characters. But they were different than Thomas, McCarthy, Mailer, or O’Brien: Southern drunks have guns.

Let us not forget that, though he moved out West, Hunter S. Thompson brought with him this outlaw Southern sensibility and used it to help create the whole counterculture ideal that drugs bring us to a place of wisdom. His first major work was not about the Hells Angels or Las Vegas; it was about the Kentucky Derby.

And while we’re on the counterculture, the only decent, nonmurderous white Southerner in Easy Rider was the drunken character played by Jack Nicholson.

One of the reasons the South may have been ripe for the vision of the intoxicated outlaw was country music, which was given the powerful, tragic image of the martyred Hank Williams, dying from booze and pills in the back of his Cadillac on his lost highway. By the 1970s, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and a slew of other performers took up the mantle of their hard-living hero as a brand—they were outlaws. Johnny Cash repeatedly found redemption in repentance—wouldn’t have had nothing to repent without the booze, then the speed, and then the downers, and then the speed. And Billy Graham loved him.

“Ladies love outlaws,” sang Waylon Jennings, which is why drinking in the South was so often segregated by gender. Our families are full of stories of the men who didn’t drink disappearing out back for hours—while the women, meanwhile, sneaked the cigarettes denied to them by social convention. The illicit nature of the activity created a complicity, a community of the damned that required trust and brought out a certain garrulousness that one can find today in drug subcultures. Smoke a joint with a stranger and you immediately have a deeper bond than you otherwise would.

“We are come to a world within a world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life of dreams. illshapen or black or deranged, fugitive of all order, strangers in every land.” This is from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, the novel that best brings all of these strands of Southern intoxication together: Cornelius Suttree is the reprobate scion of a good family, who leaves it seeking a more intense world, and finds himself enmeshed in the fraternity of the doomed who haunt the outskirts of Knoxville, Tennessee, and their own drunken minds. The novel provides one of the greatest evocations of the ebb and flow of drunken talk, the kind of talk we were immersed in there at the Charlotte International Speedway with our newfound friends from the hills of southern Virginia.

We kept hanging out with our new friends at the campground. At some point in the conversation—it was at the moment that people were flat-footing to the Gourds’ cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”—someone mentioned Jesco White, the star of the cult documentary The Dancing Outlaw (and more recently The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia). Our friends were surprised that we knew of Jesco and tested us to see if we, more middle class, more urban, viewed him as a minstrel or as something more serious. In the films Jesco huffs gas, takes and snorts pills, and is, somehow, almost a caricature of the “outlaw” figure. Though the Compsons and the Suttrees were upper-class outcasts, among less snooty segments of the population intoxication has always been more accepted. Everyone else in the White family is also getting wasted and yet, still Jesco is termed “outlaw” even within the world of this holler where everyone, to some extent, is an outlaw.

And when my father and his brothers first got involved in NASCAR, it too was a roughneck and illicit thing to do—something that proper people would not be interested in, something that had its roots in moonshine smuggling (as “The Last American Hero,” Tom Wolfe’s essay on Junior Johnson brilliantly displays). When I was visiting my grandmother just before she died, I started talking to a guy at a bar one night. It turned out he was a friend of the family. He bought me a shot and told me my dad and his brothers took him to his first race, in Daytona, when he was twelve, and he was so drunk he was puking out of the back of the truck the whole time. He bought another shot and we laughed and drank it, and I bought another. Now we were friends and had shared some communion.

But, back in Charlotte, as we woke up the next morning in the camper beside the rock a half a mile from the track and saw everyone there already drinking coozied beers and pitching horseshoes, it was clear that, like NASCAR itself, getting loaded had long ago gone mainstream and is now, even more than racing, among the most popular forms of Southern recreation. The lawyers and bankers who golf on the links that once drove Benjy crazy in The Sound and the Fury and broke Jason III’s heart now have their caddies openly tote coolers of beer. “Caddie!” he screams, signifying nothing.