It’s no accident that the railroad looms large in Love in Tennessee (Red Hen, 2009): The narrator’s father, like Bowers’ own, is a night telegrapher at a small-city depot in east Tennessee; his young son carries his dinner down the tracks in an old Christmas fruitcake tin. But Love in Tennessee, overflowing with idiosyncratic town characters whose lives and loves feel authentic as denim, is billed as a novel, not a memoir.
“Well, sure. I didn’t want to be sued or killed,” Bowers grins. He’s sprawled in his comfortably funky Phoenicia cabin, wearing a sweater that brings out the blue of his crinkly eyes. His folksy cadences and Smoky Mountains lilt seem tailor-made for the radio; he’d be a natural on “This American Life.” Bowers often closes his eyes as he speaks, as if the rich world of words inside his head requires his undivided attention.
He calls Love in Tennessee “a fictionalized memoir. It’s written about real people, but in some cases they’ve been changed quite a bit, or made into composites, including the love of my life—of the narrator’s life,” he amends with a quick glance at his second wife, architect Leslie Armstrong. “All those figures in the book have been in my head since I was 22 or 23. They never left my mind. It was an unbidden collection.”
Bowers turned 80 last year, so it’s been a long marination. That may be why the stories seem perfectly pitched, both nostalgic and fresh. There’s the overripe teacher who gives her male students flying lessons, the lustful fat man who looks like Clark Gable from the neck up, the cocky star athlete whose leg amputation changes his fortunes forever. Most of all, there’s the never-named narrator, who moves as a small boy among ladies’ rustling nylons, gets his sexual education in the backseats of buggies parked inside a barn, and finally meets his soulmate, the hometown girl he must leave behind to enter the wider world.
It’s not the first time Bowers has examined this theme. His breakthrough novel The Colony (E.P. Dutton, 1971) is a roman a clef about leaving his Tennessee sweetheart for a wildly eccentric Midwestern writers colony run by Lowney Handy and her protege, James Jones of From Here to Eternity fame. For a year and a half, Bowers joined other young men in a monastic apprenticeship, living in tents and motel rooms furnished only with cots, desks, and typewriters.
“Lowney Handy wouldn’t tolerate any female that came on the premises,” Bowers recalls. “She wanted to keep Jones on the reservation.” Her teaching method was unorthodox: Her “boys” were instructed to retype great novels. (“Let it seep into your brain and it’ll stay there.”) Though Bowers, who’s taught at Columbia and Wilkes University, doesn’t recommend the copying method, he’s grateful for his hands-on literary education. “I discovered Edith Wharton at the colony. I read Middlemarch, which is as topical as anything written today about a small town.” He also met Norman Mailer and Montgomery Clift, both of whom blast through The Colony.
Bowers’ Pygmalion was a rakish journalist named Chandler Brossard. After a colorful series of blue-collar jobs, Bowers moved to Washington, DC. He was languishing in a bureaucratic job at the State Department—“I was not a diplomat, by far”—when he asked out a co-worker Brossard was tailing for a Look magazine piece on “the typical Washington girl.” As Bowers remembers, Brossard got “immediately drunk” and advised him, “John, you’re wasting your time in DC. You’ll be among the living dead.” If he was serious about becoming a writer, New York was the place. Brossard even offered a place to stay, at his pied-a-terre on the Lower East Side.
Burning all bridges, Bowers moved to New York in 1962. Brossard had neglected to leave him a key; when Bowers finally got in, his apartment was trashed. But Brossard took him under his wing, introducing him around at Magazine Management—“the last of the pulps,” Bowers says—where a staff of ambitious young men, including Bruce Jay Friedman, Mario Puzo, and Joseph Heller ground out questionably factual but well-turned copy for lurid magazines like For Men Only and Male. “We’d write stories like ‘Rockaround Dolls of New Orleans,’ ‘Wild Women of Moscow,’ expose hotbeds of prostitution on Wall Street,” Bowers laughs, recalling the audacity of their inventions. “Puzo would write about World War II tank battles that never happened.”