Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Review: NASHVILLE BURNING by Gerald Duff

Gerald Duff
Nashville Burning
Hardcover, 978-0-8756-5667-0, (also available as an e-book), 320 pgs., $29.95
October 2, 2017

Impact Symposium, Vanderbilt University, April 1967. Guess who’s coming to dinner? You won’t guess, you’ll never guess. The esteemed speakers included Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Strom Thurmond. I kid you not. Rioting in Nashville followed.

Gerald Duff’s new novel, Nashville Burning, takes these few but fantastical historical details and creates richly imagined communities of university faculty and students, maintenance workers and cooks, wandering hippie troubadours and restless housewives, then stirs these communities into a tale of race, sex, class, and generational change.

Nashville Burning opens with a tour of the various neighborhoods of the city and Vanderbilt University, introducing the cast of characters in their native habitats. I was immediately engaged by Duff’s tone of ironic formality. The cast is large, but each character is closely drawn with a unique voice and easily differentiated, especially the one in the rat costume and the one who thinks his left arm, being the reincarnated left arm of a Confederate officer, is dead. These diverse voices create a rich chorus of accents and dialects. Duff has a flawless ear for the rhythms of the Old South. Multiple plots and subplots are told in multiple third-person points of view, then seamlessly woven together.

Award-winning author and Texas native Gerald Duff is one of the most versatile writers working today. Nashville Burning is the fifth book by Duff that I’ve reviewed. One was a memoir, another historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century, another a contemporary mystery, and yet another a contemporary comedy about historical re-enactors at Little Big Horn. No matter the genre or time or form, Duff always delivers. Kudos to the design team at Texas Christian University Press—Nashville Burning is a handsome volume with striking jacket art.

This tale of strife in the late 1960s is fine social satire, a sardonic send-up of campus politics, and a sharp-edged portrait of generational conflict. The grave issues so entertainingly explored in Nashville Burning are still hot today.

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