Novelist and journalist James Conaway’s memoir Memphis Afternoons (published in 1993) is a colorful, strikingly accomplished look back at his remarkable family and at the city he grew up in. It’s alternately poignant and funny, but always absorbingly readable.
The book opens in the 1980s, when Conaway look time from his job at the Washington Post to return to his hometown for the first time in many years. He came back for family business–his aged father had begun showing signs of rapidly advancing senility. From there, the majority of the book flashes back to reveal the Memphis of the 1940s and 50s from which Conaway emerged.
The focus throughout is on his family–prominent and frequently eccentric, and therefore right at home in this charmingly oddball city on the Mississippi River. A truly elegant but never stuffy portrait of the young Conaway, his family members and the world they inhabited emerges from the author’s honest, knowing writing.
Conaway’s adventures in this unique Southern city and its outskirts are quite fascinating, whether when detailing the mannered absurdities of the wealthy white elites of Memphis, the ramshackle pains and pleasures of those less fortunate (white and black alike), or his own coming-of-age struggles.
I found the book quite wonderful overall and want to track down more of Conaway’s work in the near future. The book, I should note, is still available from Amazon (and other sites, I would imagine). Give it a look–you won’t be sorry!