It was two years ago, on the Sunday before Leslie Garrett died, that he craved lemonade. The kind his grandmother Florence Bradley used to make. If you come across a copy of In the Country of Desire, the last novel by the late Knoxville writer, you will see her name there on the dedication page. The book is in memory of her.
Florence was unavailable to make lemonade, having died in 1959. So I brought lemons to Les’s Fort Sanders apartment and we tried to recapture what it was like to have been a boy on a summer’s day in Philadelphia. In some ways that lemonade was Les’s last great disappointment. The cancer that would kill him had quietly stolen his ability to taste the sour and bitter sweetness.
Les was not known as a man with a taste for lemonade. Throughout most of his life he nursed a tragic love for stronger drink. Nor was he given to affectionate reveries over long-dead grandmothers.
Then again, any generalization one makes about him is suspect. Alive or dead, or half-alive on the printed page, he is not an easy man to categorize. He liked to quote Walt Whitman’s declaration, “I contain multitudes.” And so he did.
There was the Leslie Garrett who could be acid tongued when he felt the occasion demanded. There was the charming Leslie Garrett, who could recite a hundred one-liners from old comic routines, who could dance and sing along to Broadway show tunes and jazz classics. There was the boxing enthusiast, who knew the lifetime record of all the great pugilists, and the stories of how most of them lived out their lives after ringside acclaim turned to echoes. Then there was the writer who chronicled the outcast, the unloved, the obsessed. Above all, there was the writer.
I think I know why so many of Les’s fictional characters lose everything in the end. Why Farley Grimm spirals down to degradation and savagery in Les’s first published novel, The Beasts. Why, in story after story, characters perversely cast off every hope of affection and salvation as their prospects for fame and love and riches come to nothing.
To point to Les’s own sad experiences—the abuses he endured as a child, his titanic struggles with writer’s block, addictions, divorces—would be to beg a question. Looked at whole, his life is a conundrum. Is the beginning contained in the ending, or is the opposite true?
He left clues. Among them an unfinished manuscript about a dying author in search of redemption. Les wrote the novel years before his throat cancer came on, but Like Les, in the end, the fictional author faced the grim prospect of starvation. He also left a collection of short stories, The Book of Little Crucifixions. It is an appropriate title, although some of the “crucifixions” he chronicled are not so little.
Like Hemingway, like Poe, Les wrote from a raw wound that threatened to devour his life and sanity. Only by speaking the horror, by committing his vision of it to paper, could he drain the wound that tore at his soul.
Still, “I contain multitudes,” he would say. And some among those multitudes that were Leslie Garrett, surely knew moments of transcendence, or redemption, or solace. You can glimpse transcendence in a shimmering story called “Choo Choo and the Last Dance,” which won for Les the Tennessee Arts Commission’s Alex Haley Commemorative Award for Fiction. Vernon Monday finds a strange redemption at the end of In the Country of Desire, and solace is glimpsed, at times, in a short memoir of childhood called “My Days at Byberry,” Les’s last written work.
In his final days, Les would awaken to see apparitions from among the multitudes he contained. They would be standing by his bed or looking in at his windows.
One day he awoke in the presence of a small adolescent boy. He had short, slicked back hair, and he stood gazing into Les’s eyes. Les recognized himself.
Maybe he asked for lemonade.