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James Robert Peery: Lost and Found

By Alec Clayton

I never knew my uncle James Robert Peery, or if I ever did meet him I was too young to remember. He died when I was 11 years old, and for reasons I never knew, our branch of the family seldom visited his branch of the family. Nevertheless, he was my hero when I was growing up, and the inspiration for my desire to become a writer.

Uncle Jimmy (James Robert) published two successful novels under his own name and many more under various pen names, including dozens of stories published in pulp magazines and crime novels under the pen name of Carl Buchanan, three of them published in the UK.

My mother told me many, many stories about Uncle Jimmy, and I hung onto every word of them. Among the stories was one about when he was in the army in World War I. Trench warfare. Soldiers would shout to other soldiers in other trenches. Once he shouted out, “Where does the Southern cross the dog?” and an unseen soldier shouted back, “Moorehead, Mississippi.” And Uncle Jimmy knew he was talking to a fellow Mississippian. The place in question was a railroad crossing famous in blues lore. The “Southern” and the “Yellow Dog” were rail lines.

She also told me about the time Uncle Jimmy escorted Gypsy Rose Lee to some fancy ball and about the time he was not allowed in a supper club because he was not wearing a tie, so he went to the men’s room and fashioned a tie out of toilet paper and they let him in. I don’t know if that was when he was Miss Lee’s escort or some other time.

Mom told me they were living in the home they grew up in when he finished his first novel. She said, “He never had to look up a word in the dictionary as he knew them all.” His daughter Suzanne Peery Schutt related the same thing in “The Compleat CARL BUCHANAN [JAMES ROBERT PEERY]” by Steve Lewis’ Mystery*File http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=439.

James Robert Peery’s first novel, Stark Summer: A Novel of Correlated Incidents, was published 1938 by Harper & Brothers. It was a portrait of a small North Mississippi town as seen through one summer in the lives of a family. His second novel, God Rides a Gale, 1940, also by Harper & Brothers, was the tale of a “Holy Roller” preacher who sold bootleg liquor, and the tornado that swept through his revival tent during a Sunday night service.

“Its characters–although they become, in Mr. Peery’s hands, both interesting and important–re actually such a gallery of grotesques as could not be matched outside the pages of Faulkner or Caldwell. …A remarkable study of human aspiration and self-deception, it rises in the end to a conclusion of almost matchless irony.” New York Times review by Margaret Wallace of God Rides a Gale

“…he doesn’t spare you much, but there is sympathy in the presentation and less cynicism than in the comparable Faulkner and Caldwell novels. A good job-but not for the conservatives.” Kirkus Review of God Rides a Gale

“Peery’s Stark Summer was one of a host of Southern novels published during the late 1930s and 1940s which represent the critical spirit of a generation dissatisfied with its parental attitudes though my no means smug about its own. Most of the writers of this fiction—including Hamilton Basso, Bernice Kelly Harris, Kathleen Crafored, and Peggy Bennett, as well as Peery—were liberal, tolerant of most everything except pretense, snobbery, and prejudice. They often ridiculed their elders, but they were also capable of probing their own psychological dilemmas.” from Lives of Mississippi Authors 1817-1967 edited by James B Lloyd

Stark Summer and God Rides a Gale are both out of print.

James Robert suffered from agoraphobia, likely brought on by his service in war. He was psychologically unable to go far from home. My mother said he would get in his car and drive around and around the football field and could not go any farther. However, he did conquer it enough to move from his small hometown of Eupora, Mississippi, to the state capital in Jackson, where he was head of United Press Association, Jackson, Miss. Bureau, first news director for television station WLBT, and was news editor for  Jackson radio station WJDX.

James Robert died in 1954 at the age of 54, leaving behind a just-finished novel, Angels Sleep Alone, a sequel to God Rides a Gale. To my knowledge, no one outside his immediate family knew about this novel.

A year ago, I met his granddaughter, Anne Peery Schutt Turner at a family reunion, and since then Anne and I have communicated regularly, mostly by Facebook messenger. She recently told me about the unpublished novel and sent me the manuscript—typed on now yellowed paper with hand-written edits. I read it and enjoyed it. It is a novel that I think should have been published 60 years ago. With Anne’s permission, Mud Flat Press is going to publish Angels Sleep Alone. Watch for future announcements.

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