Book Review: Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant

I had a few DNFs this week, but was reminded of this gem when I recommended it to someone and don’t regret revisiting it.

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Richard Grant is an English ex-pat who has been living in the United States for a number of years. While living in a small New York apartment, Richard took a trip with a friend of his to Mississippi. On a whim, he buys an old plantation house and moves into it with his girlfriend. And thus is the start of hilarity and truth.

Neither Richard nor his girlfriend are familiar with Mississippi, much less the Delta–not named for a geographical delta, but actually an alluvial plain. He is now a resident of Pluto, a town named for the mythological lord of the Underworld. And after stories for critters in the walls, battling bugs, and his initial feelings of complete isolation it doesn’t take much to figure out why.

He meets many interesting people along the way and starts to unravel the mystery of why the Delta is so different not just from the rest of the Mississippi, but the rest of the country. It is its own beast, something that fascinates Grant enough that he becomes enamored of his new home. A self-proclaimed nomad, he puts down roots.

But his transition is not without difficulty, and he relays stories as only an outsider can. Making friends with a Blues legend, an eccentric millionaire, a Hollywood celebrity, a local hunter, a cookbook queen, and many more, Grant doesn’t shy away from his observations about the racial tensions of the area or the major structural problems of the small towns throughout the region.

Despite its lingering problems, Grant declares that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America.

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I was born in the Mississippi Delta. The pictures across the top of my blog all come from places and events near my hometown. My entire family, including my step-family, originates from the same area. And this book brilliantly captures what makes the Delta so utterly unique.

The book barely scratches the surface on a lot of issues, both because it would take thousands of pages to delve deeply and the friendships with locals that help make the book what it is were still developing while he wrote it. But as I read it, I laughed until I cried. And on a couple of occasions, I just cried.

I moved out of the Delta when I was still in elementary school, but returned to visit family frequently throughout my childhood and young adult life. I can say with honesty, that it’s hard to recognize how weird of a place it is until you step outside of it. And seeing it through an outsider’s eyes is always both hilarious and humbling.

That’s the essence of this book. It’s a true account of this man’s experience as he tries to figure out how we, the people of the Delta, came to be the way we are. He talks about how his revelations affect his view of Mississippi in general and the Delta in particular. And let me assure you, the Delta is indeed a space all its own. I noticed in college at Mississippi State that most kids say things like “I’m from the coast,” or “I’m from Jackson,” with the same voice inflection that most people would say “I brushed my teeth this morning.” It’s just a fact. But when people say “I’m from the Delta,” it’s different. It’s a story. And Richard Grant wrote his book based on his attempts to figure out that story.

I didn’t read this book alone. My sisters and my stepmother read it and we would text each other back and forth about things we read. Mostly we were laughing at what the author thought was so utterly strange that was completely familiar to us. So if you want a pretty spot-on account of what makes the Delta tick, this is a great resource.

 

Slicker Than Owl Shit and Other Colorful Southern Sayings

I grew up in the South. I was born in rural Mississippi, lived for a brief few years in Florida during elementary and middle school, moved to Alabama as a teenager, came back to Mississippi for college, moved to Tennessee afterward, and now I’ve circled back to Mississippi again. Don’t get me wrong, I have lived other places here and there. I have traveled to other parts of the world and I have loved and appreciated beauty beyond my own backyard, but there is something about the South that always calls me back home. My roots are here, my family is here, and down here I don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Most of the time.

In the South, we learn there is always more than one way to do things. The cotillion and debutante ball crowd have a way of doing things, and the bumpkins from the backwater have another. Thanks to the strange and wonderful characters who dominated my childhood, I’m schooled in both. My mom was a debutante, but we were all from the backwater. I can bless your heart or butter your butt and call you a biscuit. I’m multi-talented like that.

In the South, we “bumpkins” tend to be particularly descriptive. We have to be. Satellite and GPS can’t find us, and there aren’t an abundance of street signs, so giving someone directions can take some very specific landmarks. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot to do in the middle of nowhere sometimes, so storytelling is in our blood. We sit around sharing anecdotes to pass the time. We could sit around telling stories that start off by saying it was hot, or we can talk about how it was hotter than blue blazes, hotter than a two dollar pistol, or hotter than the seventh circle of Hell. With all those options, hot doesn’t really seem to cover it anymore. Hot is boring. Hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch is illustrative.

It works with cold, too. It might be freezing, but there is no need to use such mundane language. Not when you can say, “It’s as cold as a well digger’s ass in the Klondike out there!” Or, even, “It’s as cold as a witches tit in a brass bra in Wichita in the winter time!”

 

Of course, we have equally articulate sayings about topics other than the weather. For instance, if something is quite slippery, be it object or person, it is “slicker than owl shit.” Just how slick is that? Well, in the words of my own father, “Pretty damn slick.”

And if something is extremely rich and thick, it can be described as “three feet up a bull’s ass.” I’ve heard this used to describe decadent desserts. Ponder that for a moment.

We also have important words of wisdom to pass along to all who may need guidance in this world. And by guidance, I, of course, mean a huge old-fashioned reality check. Precious, timeless gems like “if you’re gonna be dumb, you better be tough,” and “the only place you will find sympathy around here is in the dictionary.” The latter of those two has an extended version, but I think I’ve already used enough curse words for one post. I do avoid them when I can.

And while you all know that someone who is caught off guard, and looks a little nervous looks like “a deer in the headlights”, they can also be “as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs.”

And we could tell someone to grow up and act like an adult. Or, and hear me out on this, you can tell them to put their big girl panties on and deal with it.

I have no earthly idea where these things originated, but when using a few of these quips in front of people who are not at all accustomed to my way of life, I have been met with more than few quizzical looks followed by “Excuse me?”

You should try it sometime. It’s fun.

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Of course, don’t be fooled by the prim and proper way of saying things in these parts either. That little old lady from who you got directions back to the highway? When she said, “Bless your heart, I know you must be road weary,” what she really meant was, “You look like hell. Please get off my property before people start to think we know each other.”

I am sure there are other sayings from around the country, or even the world, which are equally hysterical and I assure you, I would love to know them. Please pass them on.