If there were to be a film adaptation of “Southern Discomfort,” Atlanta author Tena Clark’s brave and heartfelt memoir, its opening scene could be the one where her beautiful and long-suffering mother, Vivian, wearing a pink velvet housecoat and matching slippers, is on her back porch in Waynesboro, Miss., firing a BB gun at squirrels scampering up her clothesline pole.
Or it might instead open decades earlier, at the part when Vivian, “a beloved figure around Waynesboro, which was kind of amazing given her years as its most infamous and visible alcoholic,” gets an anonymous phone call. She learns that her then-husband, Lamar, is at that very moment driving east toward town on Highway 84 with a college girl practically sitting in his lap. Vivian grabs her .38 Colt pistol, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and one of her sisters, then speeds away in her Cadillac, set on murdering that no-good you-know-what.
The author, a Grammy Award-winning music industry professional for film and TV, even provides a score for this scene: Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’.” That song blasted from the radio in her mother’s Cadillac as she took a pull from her bottle and peeled out of the driveway. Clark probably still can’t hear a Little Richard song without reliving that day.
No one could ever get Lamar Clark, said to be among the richest men in Mississippi, to curb his cheating ways. “Tough as iron and mean as a snake,” he unapologetically had a steady string of paramours.
Vivian married Lamar when she was 15. By 21, she had given birth to three girls. The fourth, Tena Rix Clark, came along in 1953, “the save-the-marriage baby that didn’t save the marriage.”
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She was also Lamar’s last-ditch chance for a son. And Clark didn’t exactly wish she were a boy, no, not quite that. More precisely, she thought of herself as a boy — but didn’t have a clue why that was, what it meant, or what could be done about it. She was often too busy trying to keep Mama from murdering Daddy.
Like their mother, Clark’s sisters competed in beauty pageants. That was not for baby sis, who loathed taffeta and crinoline. As her sisters began their adult lives, Clark was a lonely tomboy who wore cowboy boots and pants, romped in the fields and rode her horses topless — for as long as she could get away with it.
One day, when Tena was 6, a sister brought home a friend, a fellow majorette from high school. Clark was on the floor playing with Lincoln Logs when she glanced up at the stunning girl in sequined leotard and white-tasseled boots. Though unaware of her sexuality, Clark instantly knew that she wanted to be with a beautiful creature like this one forever: “I didn’t want to be a majorette, I wanted to marry one.”
Sometimes, all the booze in Mississippi wasn’t enough “to dull Mama’s pain and ease her rage, and she boiled over like a pot of gumbo with too much flame under it — angry and foaming and stinking up the kitchen to high heaven.” On Clark’s 10th birthday, Vivian left Lamar for good. She also gave up mothering her fourth child and abandoned their grand home, choosing to live in near poverty, alone with her bottle.
Even as a child, Clark knew that making money and chasing women were her father’s top pursuits. When her daddy wasn’t with another woman, Clark was his sidekick, doing rounds around town, making bank deposits and eating most of their meals in restaurants. Clark’s days often began with Coca-Cola and doughnuts.
Why do we like to read about crazy, dysfunctional families?
Perhaps because it makes our own broods and upbringings seem sane by comparison. There’s a weird comfort in learning about other people’s setbacks and challenges. What makes “Southern Discomfort” especially fine is Clark’s first-rate, efficient writing and swift, captivating storytelling. A sharp and sensitive observer as a kid, Clark slaps us down into an authentic time and place: Waynesboro, Miss., population 5,000.
In a brief prologue, Clark mentions her conflicted feelings about the South, a “complicated place, and yet it still burrows into you, like the fangs of the water moccasins I used to hunt as a young girl on the Chickasawhay River behind our farm.”
The memoir zeroes in on the author’s childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, in the deep pockets of the Jim Crow South, then touches on college in the early ‘70s at the University of Southern Mississippi. Clark skillfully skirts through the next few decades to provide context and meaningful closure.
This is an unforgettable Southern story of a certain era, through and through. One memorable chapters deals with the Clark family’s maid, Virgie, a black woman who was a surrogate mother to Clark. As a young teenager, bold and naïve Clark insisted on bringing Virgie inside the local café to sit and order from a table. Despite a legal end to segregation, Waynesboro wasn’t going to change things right up. Clark’s undertaking proved disastrous.
Although her parents were self-centered and messed up, Clark knew they loved her. Her love for them was and remains fierce and true. “Southern Discomfort” ultimately proves to be hugely satisfying comfort food. It sings brightly to the incredible strength of family ties and the great power of love.
By Tena Clark
Simon & Schuster
296 pages, $27