I knew a guy once who whenever he was asked where he was from would reply, “Grover’s Corner.” To anyone who didn't figure out the ruse, it sounded familiar, except that, where was that town? It was, it is, Thornton Wilder’s fiction from his famous play Our Town. I had the same experience with the town in the first John Jordan novel by Michael Lister. Pottersville. I knew that place. Why, I think I've been there. Many times.
Usually around Christmas. Pottersville is what Frank Capra calls his also fictional Bedford Falls in the film It's a Wonderful Life when the angel shows a suicidal James Stewart what his hometown would become if he'd never existed, a nightmare town filmed using all the atmospheric tricks of film noir. What better name for a town in a violent crime thriller like Power in the Blood, the first John Jordan novel, that, like Capra’s movie, deals with the transcendent theme of redemption?
Twenty years into the John Jordan series, about a crime-solving prison chaplain, Lister no longer fictionalizes the town’s name, his own hometown, but calls it by the unpronounceable Wewahitchka. It was in Wewa, as everyone calls it, that I met Michael Lister’s work and the author himself. An article in a local electric company mailer told me about a crime novel set in the town, written by a Wewahitchka writer of some reknown though unknown to me. I read it.
Wewahitchka, a one-street-light town in the Florida Panhandle, had already enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame, in Ullee's Gold, a 1997 film by Victor Nuñez, who sets all his work in the Panhandle, starring Peter Fonda in an award-winning role as a Wewa beekeeper – the town is home to artisanal Tupelo honey. Many scenes were filmed locally. But Lister, born into a well established Wewa family, goes deeper. For me the thrill of reading A Certain Retribution, the Lister novel I first encountered, was how everything happened in places I knew: the bar, once a bikers’ hangout called precisely The Bar, but now renamed and less raffish; the houseboats on the river; the one coffee-shop in town, where Lister gives himself a cameo appearance. It was not a John Jordan book, but it was certainly a crime thriller, set right here in my new hometown.
I had moved to Wewa after living in New York City and Miami, both cities where I worked as a journalist, the doomed profession of our times. When the doom caught up with me, and being of retirement age, I figured it was time to retreat from worldly noise and finally try my hand at what Michael Lister was doing at a much younger age and with great success: writing books. My sister had married a local man and lived in his family property outside Wewa, a small ranch where they raised horses and chickens. My aging parents had moved right next door, into a double-wide trailer the size of a comfortable suburban home, and my father had died there. I lived with my mom the last two years of her life and now the double-wide, common housing in these parts, was my home.
The Florida Panhandle is the Deep South, as Lister himself has made it clear, unlike South Florida, where one is hard pressed to hear a Southern accent. “The best fiction is regional, is geographically specific”, Lister has said, calling himself “one of those novelists” of the romantic and misery-ridden South. Like the scent of honeysuckle in The Sound and the Fury, the heady perfume of the region haunts, underpinned by an extroverted religiosity – so different from the tight Protestantism of the old North – and a painful history. This is a zone where crime could be rightfully called sin, where a chaplain, a prison official whose job is to redeem rather than punish, is the right kind of hero.
John Jordan enters the world witnessing a killing, and then, in a grotesque bit of slapstick, falling into the victim and soaking up his blood. But he's cool. The chaplain takes his role seriously and control of the situation. He is, after all, a man of God. And he's also a detective, solving, as they all must, crimes, which is to say, riddles. Mysteries. And mysteries are what crime fiction and religion are both all about. Except that in one, what matters is to eliminate the mysteries and let the light shine through, while in the other the light shines through when there's faith in the mysteries. A detective/chaplain, who else could manage both?
At the core of the John Jordan mysteries is the region itself. This Deep South in North Florida. There is mystery here. The woods are thick with undergrowth. Trek for a while and they become wetlands. If Florida’s most famous wetland, the Everglades, is a flat and endless savanna of sawgrass, the swamps here are bayous, just as wet but denser. And there's none of the genteel South of lore. No antebellum mansions until you're practically in Georgia. Instead, the improvised life of doublewide trailers and riverboats. Suburban ranch houses. Beach houses on stilts. Cottage from an Old Florida that has not yet fully succumbed to development.
Wewahitchka/Pottersville is a town with practically no fast food chains or other signs of the tacky modernity of the Sun Belt. Yet, there isn't any small town cuteness either, gussied up for tourists. To say everyone knows everyone is no exaggeration. Or as I've heard it said, “everyone here knows a girl is pregnant before the girl herself finds out.” Homes don't need to be locked, and instead of police presence, everybody has guns. Not that they're shooting one another, except in Michael Lister’s novels. Extreme politeness, that Southern trait, is extended to everyone, of every background. There is a black section of town, “the quarters”, mentioned in Power in the Blood. In private conversation you'll hear the notorious n-word, but you're more likely to hear the r-word, from folk who rightfully belong to that group, as “redneck” is used sometimes with humorous pride and sometimes as the identity of those who exhibit ignorance and crassness, coming from the lips of those who in gentler circumstances apply the word to themselves and their kind.
But none of this is obvious. It took my reading Lister’s novels to begin to unravel the mysteries of the world I now live in. I knew there was a prison outside of town, but I'd never been in it. I hadn't spent time in the local bars until Michael and his wife Dawn invited me for an evening out and I heard them both harmonizing on a country song since it was karaoke night. And though my brother-in-law is as local as they come, I'm as outsider as they come – hell, I'm a foreigner. I wanted to learn more and these violent yet spiritual stories set in what was now my environment were enriching my understanding.
Were I homegrown like Lister I'd certainly be writing about this region and this town; in fact, this essay is a, hopefully not too clumsy, attempt to do so. And I'd be drawn to the religious dimension, as he is. It's not just that Wewa and environs have churches of all Protestant denominations, from lofty Episcopalian to the ocasional tent revival. It's the blood, the word that occurs, in typical fashion for crime series, in the title of every John Jordan book. The blood of crime, that which soaks the chaplain detective in the very first pages of Power in the Blood, but most importantly the blood of sacrament.
Sacrament, sacrifice. If these stories that probe religious depths are violent it's because Christianity is violent at its core, even if at its core it preaches peace. It's based on the barbaric torture and execution of an innocent man, and it considers itself the continuation and renewal of another faith that has as its story the execution of an innocent, prevented when God stays the hand of Abraham about to slay his son. Both were sacrifices, the snuffing of life with a religious purpose. What is the purpose, then, of the violence around us? Lister’s detective chaplain struggles to learn the truths of whodunnits and of the relationship of man, that violent creature, to God.
The first struggle requires powers of detention, as well as personal bravery. The second gets no help from detention, for it's an undetectable mystery that can only be approached through sacrament and sacrifice, through the power in the blood. And though there is no answer, there is, there can be, redemption. A prison is, after all, a house of sinners. Who could possibly be in more need of salvation?
But Jordan is no ascetic saint. He has struggled with alcoholism. He is wildly attracted to women. And he certainly doesn't see the world through rose-tinted lenses. As Lister has pointed out, he breaks from the genteel tradition of religious detective fiction (Father Brown) and moves instead into the hard-boiled genre. Yet, all the characters in the novels, even the worst, are human. No cardboard villains.
Lister takes me by the hand and introduces them to me. As of this writing I have yet to read all the John Jordan stories, never mind the others, for he is a prolific writer. And, as I discover the more I read, he's a craftsman of his trade and a deep one. Crime fiction can be unabashed entertainment – in fact, to be good, it should always be that – but it can go to the same places literary fiction does: a meditation, through writing, on the human, the divine, the social, the sacred, the role of humans in history and vice versa, the attraction of the concrete, and the unavoidable pull, due to the confluence of mortality and consciousness, of the metaphysical.
I navigate the blood, always shed by crime and always participating in sacrament, that flows through the John Jordan books like the river that flows by Wewahitchka. Drive through here and you wouldn't know this is a river town, a magnet for fishing enthusiasts. Like so much about Wewa the river is hidden. You have to follow the little road signs that point to a boat dock, and after a short drive through back country there's the river. The mystery. “The river is within us”, TS Eliot wrote. Unlike Lister, I am not from this town, from this river. But reading him I begin to feel it flowing within me.