In the New York Times obituary, William Grimes writes:
Mr. Hemphill turned a flair for sportswriting into a columnist’s job at the old Atlanta Journal in the 1960s, when the New Journalism began to take hold. Like Jimmy Breslin, a writer he was often compared to, he turned his roving eye to ordinary Southerners overlooked by most writers and mined the inexhaustible vein of human experience that he summed up, in his collection “Too Old to Cry” (1981), as “lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing and general unhappiness.” He also wrote blunt columns about race at a time when the topic was incendiary in the South.
“He was the kind of general newspaper columnist that hardly exists anymore,” Roy Blount Jr., who worked with Mr. Hemphill at The Journal, said by e-mail in June. “He’d go out and do things and talk to people and write 2,000 words, daily. He wasn’t a talking head; he was walking ears, or listening legs.”
Hemphill wrote a seminal book about country music called The Nashville Sound and later, a well-received biography of Hank Williams. I love his memoir about the South in the Sixties, Leaving Birmingham.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Hemphill over the phone once a few years ago. He was charming and gracious though he was already ill with throat cancer. We spoke about his debut novel, Long Gone, and the 1987 movie adaptaion for HBO (which sadly, is not available on DVD). He didn’t have much to do with the film but was pleased with how it turned out.
Long Gone doesn’t have the ambitions or affectations of Bull Durham—there’s no lofty speech-making, though the side plot involving a black slugger does stretch the movies’ credibility momentarily here and there. It is raunchier, but just as easy to like. The script moves briskly, and the direction is workmanlike, unnoticeable. The baseball scenes are not great but they are good enough; the soundtrack is evocative especially the Hank Williams’ tunes.
The movie changes the book’s ending similar to The Natural (the hero doesn’t lose he wins in the movie), but the overall effect doesn’t seem as drastic. It may be the major flaw with the adaptation but it doesn’t matter, because, like Bull Durham, the characters are so compelling that you just want it to turn out alright for them. They are long gone, just as the title, taken from the classic Hank Williams song, suggests. And the characters may be tintypes—the cynical old jock, his bombshell girlfriend, the virginal rookie—but the actors’ breathe so much vitality into them that they are completely credible (just as Hemphill makes them sparkle on the page). Henry Gibson and Teller are truly inspired in their small roles as the parsimonious father-son owners of a class D ball club.
William Peterson has a cackling good time as Studs Cantrell, a former big-time prospect turned baseball lifer, a seen-it-all-hard-living guy who smokes, drinks, chases skirts. Cantrell isn’t nice, but he’s authentic. Peterson is so loose and confident in the part, he’s more like Paul Newman in Slap Shot than he is like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham. And he never read anything by Susan Sontag. I don’t know if an actor as ever been more believable playing a jock.
Cantrell is the kind of guy who goads an opponent who owns him into a fight by telling him that he’s screwed his sister when he really hasn’t. He never feels guilt about calling women. He’s from the old school, and so is the movie. The book was published in 1979 but it is about the fifties and has a fifties sensibility. When the virginal rookie, Jamie Don Weeks, played with unaffected sincerity by Durmont Mulroney, asks Stud about women the response is blunt: “All girls fuck.”
Virginia Madsen is equally self-assured as Dixie Lee Box, a role that Hemphill described to me as “every boy’s dream of what he’s going to run into one day.” She is every bit Peterson’s match and their sexual energy is palpable. Without knowing much about them, you accept why Studs and Dixie Lee Box are drawn to each other, their sexual connection is primal but undeniable. She’s attracted to a man’s man, a man sure of himself, in spite of life’s pitfalls. She is drawn to him because he’s authentic. It’s only when Studs chooses to sell out that she turns on him. The one thing she can’t abide is him not being himself. Their carnal heat is played against the sweet courtship of Jamie Weeks and Esther, two, nice, virginal kids from religious households who work hard to suppress their lust for each other, a lust that predictably has very real consequences for them both.
Here’s an excerpt from Hemphill’s novel. He was one of the good ones and is already missed.
Stud finished reading the article about the time he finished his stack of pancakes.
Jamie came through the front door and paused, looking for a seat, and then joined him. He ordered a coffee and said, “Well, by God, we made the papers.”
“Cut out that ‘by God’ shit,” Stud told him.
“Well, Jesus, I mean—“
“And the ‘Jesus’ shit, too.”
“But hell, Stud.”
“And the ‘hell.’”
“Jamie looked at Stud with bewilderment, but said nothing. He poured sugar into his coffee and banged a spoon around in the cup. Stud folded the sports section and slammed it on top of the table.
“You didn’t like the article?” Jamie said.
“It’s all right.”
“Me,” Stud told him. “That’s what’s wrong. Me.”
“I don’t understand.”
Stud rolled his eyes. He leaned back and lit a cigar and looked at Jamie. “Fuckin’ thirty-nine years old, sitting in a goddamn diner in some piss-ant town like this, reading about myself in the Birmingham News on a Sunday morning before going out to play the fuckin’ Fort Walton Jets. Class-D. Goddamn bottom of the line.”
“Well, hell, Stud, we got a chance at the pennant.”
“And a goddamn kid who in two months’ time has learned to say ‘goddamn’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘hell’ and ‘by God’ sitting in front of me.”
“What’s that mean?” Jamie said.
“It means everything, kid.” Stud was in a melancholy mood, which Jamie and the others had noticed more and more in recent days. “You know why me and you get along so good?” He didn’t wait for a response. “It’s because you’ve got what I want and I’ve got what you want. I got experience and you got innocence. Boy, I tell you.” Stud swept a kerchief over his face. “All those years. Jesus. When I’m eighteen, living on a farm in North Carolina, the Yankee scouts come up there and promise me the world. I go off to spring training and I damned near make it before the war starts. Then I get this bad leg when I get shot up in the Pacific. Then my old lady leaves me for some goddamn four-F. Then I can’t run no more. And so I start doing the only thing I can do, which is to play baseball, all over the fuckin’ world. You name a town, I been there. You name a broad, I fucked her.” Somebody played a Rosemary Clooney song on the jukebox. “I’ve picked grapes, sold used cars, coached basketball, been a father, and screwed a sheep. I’ve lived in Ardmore, Eastman, Hopkinsville, Amarillo, Pocatello, Hazard, and Thibodaux. I’ve hit an umpire at Big Stone Gap, caught the clap in Galveston, and been run out of Waterloo for knocking up the owner’s daughter. I got a great future behind me.”
“But goddamn, Stud.”
“Kid. You got a lot of time to get ‘experience.’ Take your time.”