Reading: “Off Magazine Street” by Ronald Everett Capps
Because of the infamy of our go-to Southern novels, gems like Off Magazine Street often go unnoticed. At once vulgar and charming, grotesque and wonderful, Ronald Everett Capps’ story of two alcoholic writer-teachers who take in the crass teenage daughter of their dead, morbidly obese lover— it’s not for everybody.
Though we may gorge our young on readings and re-readings of To Kill A Mockingbird, Beloved, Confederacy of Dunces, and As I Lay Dying – all excellent novels – our neglect of a certain kind of cult-classic Southern novel relegates novels like this one, Train Whistle Guitar, and The Dog Star to the literary backwaters, only to be discovered by chance or by recommendation. You wouldn’t have run into Off Magazine Street on any high-school syllabus or summer reading list, because I don’t see any teacher being able to teach it.
In the novel, Capps uses the cuss words like most writers use commas, and the novel’s anti-hero Bobby Long is a shameless drunk, a sex fiend, and a manipulator, while his sidekick-collaborator Byron Burns isn’t much better. The two desperately misguided wanna-be romantics conveniently excuse their laziness and their perversions with the insistence that their lifestyle, which centers around Popov vodka, casual sex, and literary storytelling, is a conscious choice based on an examination of existential truths.
The novel opens by introducing us to four characters: Bobby Long, a middle-aged Marine Corps veteran whose fiercely infected big toe causes him to shuffle around in one shoe and one flip-flop; Byron Burns, a literary drunk slightly younger than Bobby; Lorraine, an extremely fat homeless woman with mental illness issues; and Hanna, Lorraine’s sixteen-year-old daughter who lives unhappily in Florida with her grease-monkey boyfriend. Soon, three of the four come together in New Orleans – Bobby, Byron, and Lorraine – and they move into a cheap hotel room, their home base above Tiny’s bar. The hotel room, which only has one double bed, is nothing more than a place to pass out, play cards, and have sex.
The three oddballs don’t seem to accomplish much for most of the dialogue-heavy opening chapters. But we get a sense of who they are. This portion isn’t really the story, just the prelude. We have to understand these two men, and their relationship with Lorraine, to understand what will come next.
Soon, Lorraine experiences a bout of unbearable pain but is refused treatment at the hospital, because of their inability to pay the bill. Bobby and Byron carry her home in the trunk of their beat-up car, since she is too big to fit in the car. The trio continues their debauchery for another short while . . . until Lorraine suddenly dies.
Her death, which the two men take as casually as anything else they do, brings Hanna to New Orleans from Florida. The teenage girl, who is quite attractive, has come to collect her mother’s belongings, which hopefully contain some money. Bobby and Byron assure Hanna that there is no money for her to collect, which is a problem, since she doesn’t have enough for a bus ticket home. Here she is, a pretty girl stuck in a cheap hotel in a strange town with two middle-aged drunks whose three main activities have been: swilling drinks, playing gin rummy, and molesting her mother.
Hanna’s arrival marks a turning point for the two men, who urge her to stay with them, not to return to Florida, under the guise that Lorraine’s disability check will arrive in a few days. (Bobby promises to forge it for her, so she can cash it.) Of course, their real goal is to have her as a far more preferable replacement for Lorraine. But the streetwise young girl knows better than to fall for their charming banter and long-shot promises. Taking the hard-line, she will stay with them for a few days, until the first of the month, then she will claim her mother’s check and go.
But Hanna stays longer than that.
The remaining two thirds of Off Magazine Street turn Bobby and Byron from pure degenerates into somewhat admirable wastrels. Once the ruse of Lorraine’s check is revealed for what it is – a way to keep the girl around while they try to have sex with her – the second phase in their efforts involves a vague promise to educate the girl, who is a ninth-grade dropout. The shift in the story comes when Hanna lets down her guard for a moment and perceives the real benefits of allowing these strange drunks to share their one meaningful gift: an understanding of great literature.
The education of Hanna begins informally as Bobby and Byron “assign” her a variety of classic novels that they retrieve at a nearby public library, among them Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Once entirely skeptical of schoolwork and required readings, when Hanna gives the books a chance, she begins to see these two lazy, lying perverts as something more. The intimation of the education and of their understanding come to her as comments or mannerisms barely hidden within drunken rambles, and the novels, which she acquiesces to read, only reinforce that these two men are more than she once thought. Her reticence wanes as her comprehension grows.
As we watch the uptrend of Hanna, Byron and Bobby make the decision to leave their small hotel room and move into a house off Magazine Street, near the river. They make a mild, half-hearted effort at fixing up the dilapidated, unfurnished wreck, and quickly build a new life that includes an assortment of derelicts and drunkards who live in a nearby vacant lot they affectionately call the “outdoor living room.”
As this point in the story, though Bobby’s childish ways continue on their normal trajectory, we see something grow in Byron: a vaguely paternal spirit, a semblance of responsibility toward Hanna. However, the two men don’t change much— though their foolish efforts have noble results. One day, Bobby disappears, and when he returns, they find out that he has gone to bring to fruition a cockamamie scheme to coerce man they know, a high school principal in Georgia, to manufacture a transcript for Hanna that will allow her to enter the twelfth grade. As Bobby holds up the papers, official documents now proclaim that Hanna is no longer a dropout from Florida, but an honors student from Georgia.
As Hanna first enters then begins to traverse the unfamiliar world of high school, she encounters real-world opposition. Beside the homework and various projects, some of the other girls don’t like this attractive newcomer who has caught the boys’ attention. However, compared to her life so far, these obstacles are easy to surmount with her own brand of crass audacity. Hanna soon makes a new friend, and her life begins to be relatively normal— relatively.
Though they have worked hard and made their best efforts to convince Hanna of the merits of an education, Bobby and Byron realize what this means. When Hanna finishes high school, she will leave them. She has already made new friends and even attracted the interest of boy, who takes her to a dance. The kicker comes when Hanna starts asking about going to college.
As the novel’s story ends, we see this unlikely family do what all families do eventually: face the immutable truths of time. Young people grow up, and their elders have to let them go. After the complex work of raising and educating this teenager is complete, she will leave them and go out into the world to experience it for herself, after having learned both what to do . . . and what not to do. Hanna arrived as an angry, suspicious girl, but she leaves as a young woman who knows that life can be more than what she first thought.
Although vulgarity and even obscenity pervade Capps’ novel, it isn’t without a purpose. Though Bobby’s and Byron’s passé attitude toward their own laziness and alcoholism and the crass lewdness of their constant attempts to procure sexual favors can’t be ignored, Bobby and Byron are also sympathetic, even lovable characters. We learn as we read that, however intellectually brilliant he may be, Bobby is a child stuck in a man’s body, and Byron is an eccentric with a near-total disdain for ordinary social norms. While each man has his faults, they also have their own unorthodox brand of goodness. To Bobby and Byron, all people are equal, all are worthy of kindness and friendship, and with a complete lack of judgment, these ne’er-do-wells embrace the people who enter their lives with full gusto. And if they hadn’t been that kind of people, Hanna might have simply gone back to being the bored concubine of a redneck mechanic in Florida and never transcended her circumstances.
Though only loosely, Off Magazine Street became the basis for the 2004 film A Love Song for Bobby Long, which is how I found out about the novel. Much like the modern classic Forrest Gump, this film adaptation only takes a few key elements and builds a much cleaner story with tidier themes. For example, the film’s story begins after Lorraine is dead, so she is only discussed, and she is not described as morbidly obese. Also, where the novel makes one scant reference to three men who could be Hanna’s father – one of them was “really smart” – the film takes that father-daughter connection all the way to fruition.
Though both Off Magazine Street and A Love Song for Bobby Long are endearing stories about an unlikely family of derelicts who find solace in each other, their components, the reasons for the characters’ interpersonal connections, and their endings are fundamentally different. No matter the reasons for the excisions and alterations, I’m glad that the film led me to the novel.