David Wesley Williams, author of the 2013 novel Long Gone Daddies, takes readers on a post-apocalyptic journey from Nashville to Memphis in his latest work of fiction, the rambunctious and rollicking Everybody Knows.
As Everybody Knows opens, we find that the world has ended — or the world as we know it in Tennessee, at least. A great flood has hit, and the constant rain becomes, metaphorically speaking, just about everything due to its immense scope: “The rain became time, place, law, religion, and the arts.” There doesn’t seem to be very much hope for a future except to board the huge steamer Clementine and head for Memphis, the “last city standing.” (Williams is a longtime Memphis resident, and the city is included in the novel’s dedication.)
It’s aboard Clementine that Williams’ troubled, flooded world becomes most alive — and captivatingly absurd. We meet Governor Trey Flattery, a bona fide ladies’ man who is more concerned about his mistresses than trying to lead. There’s also Mr. Blankenship, the snooty state historian who offers random facts identifying the state fruit, wild animal, and drink. There are two struggling songwriters, Leo Chance and Cig Murphy, still churning away to find a surefire, respected hit. Williams himself shows up as a writer determined “to be his wife’s favorite writer” who eventually gets his novel Long Gone Daddies published after receiving advice from the esteemed Mississippi author Larry Brown.
While characters like these are certainly not bound to a definitive place, Williams doubles down his Tennessee setting by emphasizing particular items aboard the Clementine. For example, Old Smokey, “the state’s old, mothballed electric chair,” makes repeated appearances as a treasured artifact that some on the ship vow to save. There are costumes and relics from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that passengers scramble over, and the pews from Nashville’s own Ryman Auditorium become protected relics. Tennessee — and specifically Tennessee culture — is a character in Everybody Knows, arguably one of its most important.
In case it’s not already clear, Williams’ novel is a satire, and a sharp, biting one at that. Nashville, for instance, is heavily caricatured, with a special emphasis on the city’s history of country music. Williams, though, saves the heaviest critiques for politics, offering pointed remarks that touch on crime, religion, and the workings of our government.
In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, a character offers a worldview he learned from his uncle: “He said every few years something real big and terrible happens that opens people’s eyes to how bad the country can be, how mean it is, how it was built on bloodshed and hate and lust for power. He said there’s an uproar and people get mad and sing hymns and demand change, and the politicians, they form committees and make speeches and then make just enough change that they can call it change. Then they give the people some bread and a circus, he said, and things get back to how they were before, only with a little bit of change to the good.”
Like I said, Everybody Knows has bite.
It’ll be hard for any reader not take note of Williams’ prose, which is downright propulsive from beginning to end. But the prose certainly isn’t the sole way the book maintains its energy. Williams also experiments with form. In these pages are weather reports, footnotes, an essay, and an interview. Some readers might, at times, feel a little overwhelmed — but this is the end of the world, after all.
Bradley Sides is the author of a collection of short stories, Those Fantastic Lives. He teaches writing at Calhoun Community College and was an instructor at Humanities Tennessee’s Young Writers’ Workshop.
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