On the copyright page of Diddy Wah Diddy, Corey Mesler writes: “Everything in this book, including its truths, is a falsehood,” establishing a humorous tone that continues throughout the book. The disclaimer is also a reminder that this is a work of fiction, even though historical characters—one-time Memphis mayor “Boss” Crump, W. C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Arty Shaw, Elvis, John Dee, Butterfly McQueen, Bessie Smith—appear in the scenes. While most of the chapters or vignettes could stand alone, together they present a complex, multi-layered imaginative account of post-World War II Beale Street, gateway to the Delta and birthplace of the blues.
Mesler’s large, diverse cast of characters includes musicians, bartenders, strippers, sorcerers, hobos, conjurers, immigrants, and hustlers. Many of the vignettes occur at Club BingoBango, a blues hall, speakeasy, and strip club. Because the language and adult situations befit the characters and settings, this book is not suitable for the faint of heart or the underage. With that caveat, I recommend this raucous ride down the famous street during the era of its decline.
Alongside historical figures, Mesler populates his stories with original characters with names like Arms Akimbo (a stripper), Ricky “the Rake” Romito, Styx Quetzalcoatl, Cornbread Slunt, and star-crossed lovers Huck and Hominy. Mesler’s knack for creating memorable character names demonstrates his expansive and imaginative use of language. That is to say, he wields words like weapons, frequently sending me to the Oxford English Dictionary—for example, when Mesler describes a character named Tiny as “anxious for thaumaturgy.”
The rhythm and prose sometimes mimic song lyrics—“Now the blues was the music and the music made Beale and the men who made the music were treated like the royalty they wanted to be treated like and the music flowed like religion”; sometimes a sermon—a character bemoans “There’s no one anywhere and the wind’s blowing down Beale, and it sounded like old voices”; or even a scripture verse, as when a happily married couple “smiled like birds whose nest is heavened in the heart of purple hills.”
Some of the more fantastical stories include time travel, sorcery, and shape shifting, and some include such characters as Santa Claus, the Devil, and a witch named Erin. Others involve believable characters in realistic situations, and the presence of historical figures lends veracity to these stories, which led me to several Google searches in addition to visits to the OED. As a result, I learned I’d incorrectly believed that Butterfly McQueen won an Academy Award for her role in Gone With the Wind. I also learned that Queen Elizabeth appointed the occultist John Dee to her royal court.
Mesler includes numerous song titles and snippets of lyrics, some of which sound obviously fictional, such as “They Bribe the Lazy Quadling,” “Walk Away from Me Backwards,” and “Sleepin on a Motorcycle.” However, references to a song called “Mississippi Lowdown Blues” appear several times, and the chapter “‘Mississippi Lowdown Blues:’ A Song” is devoted entirely to it. This chapter is comprised of two pages of the song’s lyrics and a third page, which is a photocopy of the sheet music. Because this song features so prominently in the text, I wondered whether it is an actual song rather than an imagined title, and a Google search revealed a YouTube video performance of the song. Further research revealed that Mesler wrote the lyrics (for this book), and a friend of his composed the music.
This book defies convention in content, language, and structure. One chapter is composed of a series of letters between two estranged lovers, while another contains the aforementioned song, and another recounts an extended conversation. One chapter reimagines a Zora Neale Hurston story, one is structured as a screenplay, and another is an ode.
Having lived in the Memphis area for over thirty years now, I’ve witnessed Beale Street’s rebirth after years of neglect; I’ve seen B. B. King perform in his eponymous Beale Street club. However, the current rendition of Beale Street pales in comparison to Mesler’s vividly portrayed characters and scenes. Although the book recounts the decline of the historic street, it ends on a note of hope. Elvis, having received “a little of disappearing but eternal Beale . . . sat there looking into Arkansas and beyond and into the tumbling thoughtful water as if he could see the future there and I guess he could, children.”
Mesler’s depiction of a music show aptly describes this book: “It was a callathump, a shivaree. A bombast.” One needn’t know about Memphis history or geography to enjoy this fantastical, entertaining book, but it’s certain to pique one’s curiosity about this essential piece of Americana.