Tournament is the successful first novel by Shelby Foote, a major Southern writer whose masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, has become the modern standard against which all other works of historical narrative must be weighed.
In Tournament, many of the remarkable characters from Jordon County, Foote's fictional Mississippi Delta country, come upon the literary scene for the first time. Louis Rubin, in his introductory essay on Tournament, finds major Proustian resonances and predicts lines along which Foote's future novels will develop.
Highly praised both here and abroad, Foote's novels have been on the best seller lists in France and Italy. Whether writing historical narrative or novels, he clearly belongs to the first rank of American writers of our era.
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I knew nothing of Shelby Foote 12 months ago and then I took an interest in the American Civil War and Shelby kept cropping up in my research - he appears in Ken Burn's TV doco and he has written a huge book, Civil War, A Narrative, in three volumes. I'm currently dipping in and out of that book and its a wonderful listen but too much to listen to except in short occasional bursts.
With this info on Shelby it was great to find out that he was also an author of note so I tried out Tournament. Its a lovely life story of a southern lad who makes good and becomes a planter. It gave me insight to a life I thought had gone after the surrender at Appomattox but apparently went on into the twentieth century.
Shelby has a very humorous way of writing and can paint a scene in only a few words. He even managed to describe very accurately smells which clearly shows his writing talent but the book failed to go anywhere. It was a collection of stories with Bart, the hero, as the only linking character. With a name like Tournament I expected there to be a climatic challenge but the challenge turned out to be life itself. A bit disappointing but it was nevertheless an enjoyable listen with excellent narration by Tom Parker.
I selected Tournament from a $5 gift list by Audible and as such it was a lovely listen - if I'd had to pay full price for it I think I might have been a bit more disappointed.
The audiobook, narrated by Tom Parker (not, sadly, the author – though Mr. Parker does do a wonderful job, I just missed Shelby Foote), begins with a lengthy 1986 preface by the author in which he discusses the genesis of this, his first book, and its impact on all of his other writing. Like many, I know Mr. Foote from Ken Burns's The Civil War, and one of the reasons (one of the many reasons) I bless the day I first saw that documentary is that it introduced me to the almost-shy, sly, witty man from Mississippi with the dashing grey hair and the twinkling eyes (actually twinkling!) and the brilliant way with a story. It was love at first sight. That man … Audible has been a wonder for me, allowing me to get hold of the volumes of The Civil War: A Narrative which I've never been able to justify the expense of before, as well as the novels I've never tracked down before. I embarked on this audio of Tournament unsure of what to expect, a little hesitant about whether I would love his narrative voice as much as his screen presence, and – most of all – wishing deeply that he had read his own work. (I might have mentioned that.)
My goodness, though. The book – which is only about 9 hours on the iPod – takes about 36 minutes to get to Chapter One. First there is a long, rambling – but really very enjoyable – preface by Mr. Foote about how the book (Mr. Foote's first) was written, how it was received, and how it was revived and revised, how people thought it was about his grandfather (it's not, mostly). Then there was a prologue which I admit left me completely baffled (but which makes good sense now that I've finished, and will be enhanced by a reread). But, I kept telling myself, it's Shelby Foote. Give it a minute. Or forty. I'm glad I did. It actually took longer than that for me to really settle into the story, but now – now I'm looking forward to more from Jordan County.
I kept thinking of that time in whatever-grade English when I had to do a book report and (spoiled for choice, unlike most of my classmates) picked one of my favorites, L.M. Montgomery's Mistress Pat. I loved that book (still do), and thought "Write a thing about it? Piece of cake." Then I thought about what was supposed to go into the paper. Protagonist, antagonist … plot. A plot was supposed to have an arc: a dilemma is presented, the main character pursues a solution, encounters difficulties along the way, and the predicament is resolved. Um. Pat's story was, as most of the LMM books are, more simply the tale of a life, anecdotal rather than linear, passing over large swathes of time to settle lovingly in to concentrate on a moment here, a week there. I wish I could remember how I dealt with the issue of "plot", if for no other reason than I'd love to see what kind of book review I was writing then – but also because Tournament is the same sort of book, in a bleaker cast. It is the story of Hugh Bart (Sr.)'s life, starting at a point near the end and reeling back to near the beginning. It is a few days told with vividly sharp detail of scent and color and sound and thought, a short hop to another span of days detailed intimately, a long jump to another, and a twist to leap backward for a while. It loops through the years like yarn a cat has had its way with, resting for a time on the birth and death of a child, a flood, a hunt, and then arcs up and over another span of time. It glances at a still moment on the porch here, a tragic episode now and a funny incident then and a revelation another time. It's a butterfly of a book, flying for a long time and landing when and where it will.
And it's a bad influence on my already metaphor-prone self.
I wonder if I would look at this book differently if I knew Shelby Foote had been in his forties or fifties when he wrote it? As it is, I feel as though there is a certain degree of self-conscious adherence to that phase he describes in Bart's daughter Florence in her late teens and early twenties (as well as another daughter in the course of the story), of reading and writing passionate poetry and spending much time alone thinking about death and fate – as though he recognizes the tendency in himself, and tries to turn it into something beautiful. He succeeds, for the most part, I think. There is a desolation about it all – one man works his whole life and ends up dying with almost nothing, and another man never really works at all and ends up dying with almost nothing. A man is ruined by the casual predacity of a stranger he trusted, and kills himself. Another man pours half his life into an epic project which ends up almost a joke. The women are suffocated and ground down; the men can do whatever they want, but don't know what that is.
Even so, it isn't grim. Honestly, it's not.
I haven't read much of "literary fiction" of the forties through the sixties, the kind that wins the literary prizes and is lauded by literary critics. I don't necessarily read for a Happily-Ever-After, or to see bad characters punished and good characters rewarded. I don't necessarily want "good" and "bad" characters – it's actually a positive thing when a book is filled, as this one is, with just ... people, each working his way through his life as best he can, not necessarily thinking about the future or anyone else or planning or sensing a Destiny, but reacting to occurrences and getting by. But I primarily read for simple enjoyment, and I just find it hard to enjoy a book in which – oh, heck, Macbeth said it best: "Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." The "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" dear-God-it-can't-be-only-Wednesday wishing-your-life-away-to-get-to-the-weekends aspect of life is something I get enough of outside of my reading; generally in my reading I want something which is not going to emphasize the horror of getting up every morning and dragging myself off to work I have no investment in. I can appreciate the writing and admire the skill in a book of "modern" bleakness, but in my fictional world I'm happier if at least some of the people I'm spending time with have a something better in their lives.
Tournament is not a "tale told by an idiot", not by a long stretch. It is sharp and incisive and, often, funny – and, more often, a little heartbreaking. No: this is a tale told by a genuine Southern raconteur, a modern bard using a genuine pen dipped in ink. It is a tale told by someone who knew Hugh Bart, with the chronology of thought, one incident leading to another to another, not adhering to the calendar but to the evolution of a human being. I'm going to remember these characters and their moments in the book's sun.
I have loved Shelby Foote for a long time. It makes me happy that I can, in the end, love his first book as well. With writing like the quotes I leave you with, how could I not? … … … … … … … … …From their beds the townspeople and transients would hear the music and voices, the shrill empty laughter, and would toss and curse or lie quiet and regret. … … … … … … … … He wore the dignity and detachment which the insecure assume to guard against intimacy and possible insult, and he had begun to put on weight, flesh building a barrier about the robust frame, encasing the still-hot blood. … … … … … … … … …Then a locomotive came from the north, the direction of the break, balancing a plume of steam on its whistle. … … … … … … … … His Negro fireman sweat-drenched behind him, the engineer leaned out of the cab, shouted the news to way stations off the telegraph line, and pulled the throttle open again: a short, violent screech of the whistle and, chuffing, it disappeared down the track as suddenly as it had come, dragging a dirty bank of smoke over its shoulder like a dog running with one corner of a blanket in its teeth. … … … … … … … … [The water] came like an immense plate being slid over the ground, shallow, opaque, innocent-looking, flecked with foam and littered with chicken coops and fence rails. … … … … … … … … …He walked the dim narrow sidewalks of the Vieux Carre and heard voices, mellow and soft with sin, waft down from the lace-work wrought iron balconies over his head. … … … … … … … … He wore white flannel trousers, tight in the legs and seat, the cuffs rolled above his ankles, and a blue-and-orange blazer that was belted across the back. His shoes were needle-tip, light tan, turned up at the toes. A wide-brimmed boater, worn slantwise, glinted in the sunlight; it had a candy-striped band and a length of string that drooped to the buttonhole in one lapel to keep it from blowing away. Bart followed, looking at the blazer, the hat, the narrow shoes, the orange-clocked violet socks. People all along the station platform were turning, rubbing their eyes. "You look like a dude in that rig," Bart said. "It's what they're wearing, papa." … … … … … … … … Perhaps the comet had something to do with the change. Dragging the long broad hazy tail it had flared into the northwest sky above the river, a warning sign hung up by God to signify impending judgment. Newspapers carried features predicting the end of the world. Preachers thundered in the pulpits. It was coming soon, and sinners had better get right. On the night when the earth was scheduled to pass through its flaming wake they would all be burnt to cinders in their beds, or choked by the poisonous gases. The night came and passed, however, and people emerged into a dawn that was much like the one of the day before. Mostly they were elated at having been spared the fire from heaven – but they were a little disappointed too. There was not even any stardust in the streets. Whatever else it was it was certainly anticlimactic. … … … … … … … … Bareheaded, awed, they stood waiting while it was loaded onto the hack – this was at Mrs. Bart's direction: "It has to be horse-drawn," she'd told them. … … … … … … … … The four walls are gone from around me, the roof from over my head. I'm in the dark. Alone.