Novelists lie for a living — what is a novel, after all, but an assembly of fibs paradoxically meant to illustrate something true? — but generally see a distinction between lying on the page and lying off it. If Winston Lorimar, the once-celebrated author of Lieutenant Lucius and the Tristate Crematory Band
, is aware of this distinction, he doesn’t show it, which makes Lorimar either the purest novelist alive — a 24/7 fount of fiction, his life and his work indivisibly fused — or, as some in his hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi, would have it, just a lying sumbitch. The truth, as ever, probably lies somewhere in between.
Lorimar is 69, and 40 years removed from the publication of his one and only book, but to know Lorimar — as I have since 1995 — is to experience, woozily, the fictive limbo at the heart of any novel. I was 24 when I met him, assigned to write a profile for a Southern literary magazine in which I deemed him a “trippier version of Harper Lee
”: a one-book wunderkind
gone silent. (The comparison seemed fair at the time, but, alas, Lieutenant Lucius
has weathered poorly over the years, dropping out of print eight years ago.) I didn’t realize what I was up against until the magazine’s fact-checker vetted Lorimar’s quoted stories, slicing my article’s word count by more than half. He’d lied to me, effusively, but for some reason I never took offense. As alternate universes go, his was enjoyable — its colors a bit brighter, its moral architecture a little sturdier.
It’s not quite sufficient to call him the unreliable narrator of his own existence, as a mutual friend once did; we are all of us, every one, unreliable narrators of our existences. The angle we give the bathroom mirror is always meant to flatter. No, Lorimar views his life as a story-in-progress, as one long and ever-malleable narrative, and as the author of that story he engages in a revision process so constant and fine-grained that it might well be pathological. Here’s how I described his dissembling in my most recent book, Anatomy of a Miracle: The True* Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, a Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace
, in which he makes a cameo appearance:
The sign at the entrance to the family home reads LORIMAR PLANTATION, CIRCA 1848, which is about as bald as a lie can be shaved: Donovan Lorimar, Winston’s grandfather, arrived in the Delta from Ireland in 1907 to work on the railroad, and the farm itself dates back only to the Great Depression. (A clue to Lorimar’s career withdrawal might lurk inside a comment he once made to a friend in Greenwood: “As an Irishman and a Southerner, I ravenously suckle defeat.”) The farm’s history, much like his daily life appears to be, is an act of imagination. After writing a novel, he began living one. His fictions can be small (“If you see him at the diner,” says one local, “he’ll tell you how fine the chicken that he just ate was, with a big steak bone sitting right there on the plate”) or large (to get out of a dinner engagement, he once left a friend a voicemail saying he’d been stabbed in the neck by an intruder).
This is not meant to expose or indict Lorimar, whom I’ve long admired andcome to consider a friend. He owns up to his fictive impulses, albeit evasively, and with a wink, by saying, “He who dies with the best stories wins.” This is rather to contextualize my reaction when Lorimar told me, in September 2014, that one of his daughter’s paralyzed patients — his daughter Janice is a VA physician on the Mississippi Gulf Coast — had spontaneously and inexplicably risen from his wheelchair outside a Biloxi convenience store. That reaction, unspoken, was all of one word: bullshit.
I was passing through Greenwood on a month-long magazine assignment chronicling the 1,500-mile record tour-by-bicycle of a Minnesota singer-songwriter named Ben Weaver. (My account of that tour, if you’re interested, is here
.) Lorimar had always known me as an unrepentant smoker and more general body-wrecker, like himself, so he assessed this new smoke-free iteration of me, straddling a bicycle on which I’d already clocked a thousand miles, with acid bemusement. (But not disapproval — Lorimar, after all, can begrudge no one his or her revisions in life.) As our host for the evening, before we continued our pedal-push toward New Orleans, Lorimar laid out a buffet of fried food and whiskey and was soon regaling us with stories that Weaver, of course, had no cause to disbelieve. I did not have the heart to later correct Lorimar’s assertion that his late wife, Jacqueline, had been crowned Miss America, which caused Weaver’s eyes to pop a little. In Lorimar’s view, she’d been so beautiful that she should’ve or could’ve been crowned Miss America, or at least, in the pageant of his mind, actually was Miss America. As Ken Kesey
once wrote: “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”
The night’s offhand story of the miraculous patient, then, seemed just another Lorimarism: a spectacle from his imagination, told with sufficient zest and detail to be convincingly entertaining if not entirely convincing. (Having years ago met his daughter Janice, who is her father’s antithesis in almost every way, I knew how she’d cringe at playing a starring role in one of her father’s fabulisms.) The conversation moved on and went careening late into the night. One does not retire early with Winston Lorimar, nor does one wish to — not even when facing a 90-mile ride the next morning, in the rain, through a stretch of country where cyclists are so few that dogs feel a mighty urge to try to taste them.
We are all of us, every one, unreliable narrators of our existences.
It would be better, I suppose, to say the story of the unparalyzed man started haunting or at least itching me. But it didn’t. As anyone who’s done a long-distance cycling trip will attest, your mind goes mostly blank; it often feels like just a switch for turning on and off your legs. Eventually we made it to New Orleans, where Weaver played the tour’s last gig, and where we scarfed down an obscene number of oysters at Felix’s, and where, having slept the last 30 nights on couches and at Catholic worker farms plus the occasional roadside motel, I let the magazine splurge for a swanky downtown hotel room for us. You know what feels good after a 1,500-mile bike ride? (No, not a cigarette, though I briefly considered it.) Spending an afternoon lying on a baroque, fluffy bed flipping through TV channels. It feels like majesty. For most of those 30 days on the road I’d been devoid of news — that ticker of headlines and breaking reports that underlies most of my desk days — so I pleasurably started catching up.
And then I saw it. Or rather her
— Janice Lorimar! — on a brief segment on the local news. Channel 4, I believe, WWL. I bolted upright from my wallow of luxe throw pillows, the remote frozen in my hand. There she was, fleetingly refraining from comment, in a segment about a paralyzed Biloxi man who’d, yes, somehow walked right out of his wheelchair after four years. (Winston Lorimar said five years, but that, astonishingly, was his sole inaccuracy.) The man himself — Cameron Harris — was interviewed too, and seemed genuinely thunderstruck, his wide eyes looking like they’d failed to blink since his rise. Appearing also was his older sister, who’d witnessed his out-of-nowhere rising and who happened to be wearing, I couldn’t help noticing, a T-shirt reading: “Cowboy Butts Drive Me Nuts.”
“So was this a true miracle?” I remember the reporter concluding, as she threw back to the anchor desk. “The answer to that question, Leslie, might depend on what your definition of a miracle is, and just what makes it true.” My forehead knotted. Here was a television reporter pondering the truth of a story that just days ago I’d casually dismissed, because of the source, as untrue. It was a turducken of truthiness.
Naturally I called Lorimar. “You didn’t tell me that story was true
,” I said, all but scolding him.
“Everything’s true,” he replied, in that breezy way of his, by which he might’ve meant the details of the story or his daily verbal output or even the holes in the epistemological fabric of human consciousness. With Lorimar, it’s anyone’s guess. “You should cut out that damn exercise and call Janice, write it up.”
Which I did. Was I skeptical? Deeply. Here was an unfathomable, biblical-level event in which Winston Lorimar’s DNA played a role. I recalled my shrinking shame from almost 20 years before, as the fact-checker read me the inventory of Lorimar’s embellishments and outright fabrications. But Janice was skeptical too — not of what’d happened to Cameron Harris, but how and why it’d happened — and this, coupled with her probing scientific approach (she really is her father’s obverse), felt reassuring. I ditched the bicycle and rented a car for the hour and a half trip to Biloxi.
I ended up staying six months, feverishly working to separate the true from the untrue, the possible from the impossible, the fact from the fiction. There were twists, there were secrets, and in time there came a reality television crew, an investigator from Rome paralleling my own investigation, a dying drifter shouldering a huge inflatable cross, a bizarre court case arising from a barroom brawl that was itself an extension of a terrible teenage cruelty, and hiding in plain sight one of the more beautiful love stories I’ve ever encountered.
At some point, dizzied by the circus atmosphere hanging over what was seeming more and more to me to be a mystery with profound, even shattering implications, and feeling thwarted by the metaphysical knot at the mystery’s center, I called up Winston Lorimar. In the course of my late-night bellyaching, I fell to citing Lord Byron
’s overused-to-death maxim about truth being stranger than fiction.
“Well of course it is,” came Lorimar’s reply. “See now, fiction has to make sense. That’s why we cling to it. It cooks existence into something digestible. But truth — you start gnawing on that and your damn teeth’ll break. Because all truth has to be is true.”
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels Dear American Airlines
and Want Not
, both New York Times Notable Books. He is a former columnist for The New York Times
, has served as a Contributing Editor to magazines ranging from Details
to Field and Stream
, and his journalism has been frequently anthologized in Best American Sports Writing
and Best American Crime Writing
. He is also the author of a book on fish and game cookery, The Wild Chef
, and competed in the Dakar Rally, an off-road race through Africa. Anatomy of a Miracle
is his most recent book.