Leslie Garrett hated to be called a little man. But there it was. Physically, I dwarfed my novelist friend when we walked down the street to our favorite haunts to talk.
“I’m short! So what?” he would say when the subject came up. “So was Voltaire. The greatest genius of his time!” Then he would be off, regaling me with stories about other writers short or tall, manic or sane, impotent or priapic, living or dead. No amount of talk could change his physical stature, however, and it was a chip that never quite fell off his shoulder.
When a nurse found him dead June 3 in his Fort Sanders apartment, lying alone and looking like some frail bird that had lost its plumage, it seemed impossible he could have contained so many worlds. Les won’t be sitting there Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Laurel Theater, to laugh at, or take offense at, the memories evoked, the spirits invoked perhaps, by those unaware of his aversion to religion. We will listen to music by the late great Billie Holiday, as he requested. Friends, colleagues and relatives will reminisce, and for a time Les will be with us again. But it won’t ever be the same. When Les checked out, the world became a smaller place.
I knew the first time I met him that, like Whitman, he contained multitudes. Interviewing him for a story was like holding a paper cup under a waterfall. Tales gushed forth in such a stream they threatened to deluge note pad, tape recorder and the news page on which they finally crowded as I tried to get in all the rich detail.
There was the time he went to New York, and, with one foot on the front steps of Charles Scribner’s Sons, vowed that one day the legendary house would publish his first novel. It did. Soon Les was signing contracts and discussing manuscripts while sitting in the very chair from which Hemingway, Wolfe and Fitzgerald had dealt with editors.
Les’ arrival at the forefront of promising American writers was certified when Scribners awarded him the Maxwell Perkins Award for best first novel for The Beasts. When Les came to Knoxville in 1980 and began writing In the Country of Desire, published one year ago, he was Knoxville’s connection to literary mythology. Writers he had known, such as Jim Jones, Cormac McCarthy, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg roamed the back streets of his mind. He corresponded regularly with McCarthy and short story writer James Purdy. He began a correspondence with poet Nikki Giovanni, who judged the Tennessee Arts Council’s Alex Haley Awards contest in 1991, when Les took the prize.
A writer in the grand tradition of angry, hard-living, self-destructive savants, Les railed at the universe and the publishing industry in a voice that demanded to be heard. He knew what it was like to sleep on a park bench, to swap stories for a free meal, and such knowledge informed his tales of lonely, obsessive sojourners. Les wrote about people life had stepped on, people crushed by a material universe spiraling into disarray.
It was a subject with which he became all too well acquainted as he was carried downward to death by throat cancer. He went without complaint. He went heroically, stubbornly. If there was to be survival beyond the grave, he insisted, it would be in his literary works.
“I’m in those stories, those books,” he would say. “As long as they survive, I survive.” His talent was large enough to contain worlds. Watch them spin, irresistibly, into the future.