"Highway 61 Resurfaced"
(Reviewed by Hagen Baye JAN 1, 2007)
Highway 61 traverses the entire length of western Mississippi. It enters from Louisiana in the south, runs through Natchez, Vicksburg, Greenville, and Clarksdale, before exiting through Tennessee on the north, where it goes through and beyond Memphis.
Bill Fitzhugh’s Highway 61 Resurfaced is a well-conceived and crafted novel about a terrible incident that happens on Highway 61, just outside of Leland (“the Hellhole of the Delta”), on a night in 1953, when much gambling, boozing, and partying was going on in the town—the gambling and boozing (Prohibition was not fully abolished in Mississippi until 1967) with the acquiescence of the local Sheriff, in exchange for his cut of the action.
On that fateful night, Hamp Doogan, a local photographer and minor drug dealer, was murdered. A twenty-two year old black man, Clarence “Pigfoot” Morgan, was arrested for the murder, and then, despite his pleas of innocence, was convicted and sentenced to the state penitentiary. On that same night, there was reputed to have occurred an extraordinary blues session, referred to as the Blind, Crippled and Crazy session, where “some of the most powerful blues were played,” involving blues men Blind Buddy Cotton, Crippled Willie Johnson and Crazy Earl Tate, the one and only time they performed together. However, as the years pass memories faded and by the time of this story, no one is sure whether the fabled session really did happen, and if so, where it took place, and if so, if it was taped, and if so, whether the tapes were still extant.
The novel starts off in 2003 with “Pigfoot” Morgan getting released from the state penitentiary after serving 50 years for the Doogan murder. A promising guitarist when he went in, he nevertheless somehow maintained the “dignity of a man undefeated” at the time of his release at the age of 72, despite the dashing of his hopes and dreams. When he purchases a rifle, along with some natty clothes and a flashy car, as among his first post-release purchases, revenge against those responsible for his incarceration appears to be foremost on his mind.
Around the time of Pigfoot’s release, Rick Shannon, a veteran DJ with a night slot on a classic rock station in Vicksburg, and novice PI who runs Rockin’ Vestigations (having been propelled into the field by the events which transpired in Fitzhugh’s Radio Activity, where Rick Shannon was first introduced), is approached by a young attractive woman, who introduces herself as Lollie Woolfolk and who offers him $500 to find her long, lost grandfather, whom she never laid eyes on. She knows he was a “snake oil” salesman as part of the traveling shows that had criss-crossed Mississippi years ago. Rick’s computer-aided investigation uncovers that Woolfolk eventually graduated from moonshine to being a thieving record producer. The man is located, and Rick and Lollie take a ride to his place only to find that he has just been found murdered. The police theorize that a local “crack head” was responsible.
Next, Lollie offers Rick $200 to see if he could locate her grandfather’s record producer partner, Lester Suggs, in the hope that he would fill her in on what her grandfather was like. Again, Rick tracks down his target and they go to pay him a visit. This time they walk into Sugg’s house to find him dead with a fork sticking out of his back.
Even before the Suggs visit, Rick was getting funny vibes about this Lollie Woolfolk, and they get confirmed when his trace of her car’s license plates reveal that the plates were from a car reported stolen just before she hired him and when he discovers that the home address she gave him would be situated in the middle of the Mississippi River. If this wasn’t enough to prove that he was duped by this fake Lollie Woolfolk into assisting their killer(s) find these two murder victims, firm confirmation came in the form of a woman with positive identification that she truly is Lollie Woolfolk. Under the circumstances, it does not take much to get Rick to agree to assist the real Lollie Woolfolk to tract down those responsible for her grandfather’s murder.
At the same time, for some initially unclear reason, each of the three now-aged blues men who were said to be part of the Blind, Crippled and Crazy session began to fret for their lives upon learning of Pigfoot’s release from jail. Something happened that night of Doogan’s murder and of the mythic Blind, Crippled, Crazy session in 1953 that changed each in some profound way. Blind (“And while it was true that he needed glasses for his ‘stigmatism,’ [he] called himself blind mostly for marketing purposes.”) Buddy Cotton developed such self-hatred that it likely caused the cancer that was killing him, too slowly (as Buddy saw it). Crippled Willie Johnson forsook the “Devil’s music” from that night forward and dedicated himself totally to Jesus. And, Crazy Earl Tate became even crazier and deeper into black magic and voodoo; while he “was a thoughtful man when he was sober,” he drank as much as he could, because “[h]e did not like the things he had to think about.” And when they hear of Woolfolk’s and Sugg’s murders, they were certain that Pigfoot’s seeming rampage of revenge would soon be visiting each of them.
Unbeknownst to Shannon, Pigfoot and the blues men, there were sinister forces lurking in the background. Responsible for Woolfolk’s and Sugg’s murders was drugged-out crazy Crail Fitts acting at the behest of his girlfriend, Cuffie LeFleur, the Lollie Woolfolk imposter who had conned Shannon into assisting her to locate the former record producers. Cuffie was part of the LeFleur plantation clan. The LeFleur family was initially a highly regarded family; however, after several generations, its reputation had deteriorated, as the latter generations no longer upheld the values that assisted the family’s founders to acquire the wealth its honest labor earned. Cuffie had overheard her great grandfather and grandfather (Henry LeFleur, the sheriff at the time of Doogan’s murder and who arrested Pigfoot for it) argue about the tapes of the Blind, Crippled and Crazy session (they were also in the radio and record production business) and that there was something in the tapes about Pigfoot Martin that would lead to the family’s financial ruin if they ever were found. When she heard that Pigfoot was released from prison, she took it upon herself to find the tapes to save her family’s fortune, and her hoped-for share thereof.
In the meanwhile, Rick’s investigation was bringing him to similar conclusions about the importance of the tapes and some yet unclear connection between the session and the likelihood that Pigfoot was framed for Doogan’s murder. That the blues men had something to hide about that night in 1953 is confirmed when Buddy Cotton tells Shannon that the session happened at a recording studio in Wisconsin, while Willie Johnson says they played at a local club.
Rick decides to bring everything to a head by announcing on his radio station that there will be a Blind, Crippled and Crazy reunion concert, whereat the newly found tapes from the renowned 1953 session would be played. All hell broke loose as the various principals--Pigfoot, Blind Buddy, Crippled Willie and Crazy Earl, Henry LeFleur, Crail and Cuffie--converged on the radio station and the inevitable show down results in the truth coming to light about what transpired that fateful night in 1953. As a result, a number of injustices get corrected, some truly guilty parties received the long overdue punishment they deserved, and other innocent parties are forgiven and/or redeemed.
The “resurfaced” in this novel’s title alludes to the smoothing over of the symbolic ruts and potholes that constituted the worst aspects of Mississippi’s past. Mississippi-born Rich Shannon (just like Bill Fitzhugh) speaks for the “new” Mississippi or for the better elements of Mississippi society, who love their place of birth and its laudable traditions, such as the blues music created by certain talented musicians of the Delta, albeit not too proud of the misery stemming from poverty and degradation that was the unfortunate inspiration of such music. As the real Lollie Woolfolk says to Shannon at one point: “I tell you what…. The good people in this state outnumber the bad, always have. Unfortunately, some of the bad folks ran things for too long. But things’re changing.”
Discovering Bill Fitzhugh for the first time is a delightful experience. He is a most talented and clever writer with great comic and social sensibilities. This particular book has a number of significant attributes. Along the way, one learns quite a bit about blues and Mississippi from one of its own native sons, who doesn’t whitewash its blemishes (“if prejudice wasn’t invented in the deep south, it may have been perfected here”), but who doesn’t put it down uncritically as well, like Congressman Charles Rangel’s (D-NY) insulting query: “Who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?” Fitzhugh’s point of view of Mississippi will educate, elucidate the better parts of Mississippi for non-southerners and counteract some unwarranted negative generalities about his home state.
Fitzhugh is an excellent story teller, who knows how to set up a plot, create the conflicts and bring it all to a boiling point and tie up all the loose ends nicely. He is also a masterful creator of different characters, from Rick to Crail (whose character would remind one of the kinds that Carl Hiaasen loves to create) to the aged blues men, whom he treats with due respect and veneration.
It would be derelict not to mention a particular character, who, while having no significant role in the principal plot and its ultimate resolution, did play a role in demonstrating what a softhearted pushover Rick Shannon is. Alluded to is the abandoned kitten which Rick rescued and adopted, despite the kitty’s multiple ailments, including a permanent sinus infection which caused the poor thing to sneeze twice its weight in snot from time to time. Appropriately enough, Rick named this cat Crusty Boogers.
- Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Highway 61 Resurfaced at HarperCollins.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Rick Shannon series:
- Pest Control (1997)
- The Organ Grinders (1998)
- Cross Dressing (2000)
- Fender Benders (2001)
- Heart Seizure (March 2003)
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- The official Web site for Bill Fitzhugh
- MostlyFiction.com review of Heart Seizure
- Curled Up review of Radio Activity
- PopMatters review of Radio Activity
- Crescent Blues review of Radio Activity
- BookReporter.com review of Highway 61 Resurfaced
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About the Author:
Bill Fitzhugh was born in 1957 and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. Fitzhugh began writing professionally in high school, through a Junior Achievement Program, in which he wrote and narrated a series of radio programs tracing the history of various rock and roll bands. He started working the overnight shifts and after graduation he became the morning drive DJ at the station. Later, Bill attended Belhaven College, University of Southern Mississippi and then moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington where he earned a degree in psychology. He collaborated on radio scripts with a friend and eventually moved to Los Angeles where has worked television and film.
He and his wife still live in Los Angeles, California. His current radio program can be heard on XM Satellite Radio.