Wilcox, James 1949- (James P. Wilcox)

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Wilcox, James 1949- (James P. Wilcox)


Born April 4, 1949, in Hammond, LA; son of James Henry (a music professor) and Marie (a homemaker and oboist) Wilcox. Education: Yale University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1971. Hobbies and other interests: "Though I have not kept up with playing the cello, I do practice piano dutifully and with great enjoyment. My current repertoire includes etudes and ballades by Frederic Chopin, an Aleksandr Scriabin etude, Maurice Ravel's ‘Gaspard de la Nuit,’ and Sergey Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata."


Home—New York, NY. Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.


Random House, New York, NY, editorial assistant, 1971-72, assistant editor, 1973-76, associate editor, 1976-77; Doubleday, New York, NY, associate editor, 1977-78; full-time writer, 1978—; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA, head of the creative writing program.


PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.


Guggenheim fellowship.



Modern Baptists, Dial (New York, NY), 1983, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2006.

North Gladiola, Harper (New York, NY), 1985, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2000.

Miss Undine's Living Room, Harper (New York, NY, 1987, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2001.

Sort of Rich, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.

Polite Sex, Harper (New York, NY), 1991.

Guest of a Sinner, Harper (New York, NY), 1993, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2004.

Plain and Normal, Little, Brown & Co. (New York, NY), 1998.

Heavenly Days, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.

Hunk City: A Novel, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.

Author of short stories "Mr. Ray," "Camping Out," and "The Ivy in the Chimney." Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including New Yorker, Avenue, and Louisiana Literature, and of reviews to New York Times Book Review.


An acclaimed Southern novelist and short story writer, James Wilcox has written comedies that take place in the fictional town of Tula Springs, Louisiana, a present-day community somewhere to the north of New Orleans. Based largely on Wilcox's impressions growing up in the South, the world presented by his 1983 novel Modern Baptists and enlarged in North Gladiola, Miss Undine's Living Room, and Sort of Rich has regularly drawn comparisons to such composite regional portraits as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Noting the author's eye for comic incongruity and humorous detail, critics have admired Wilcox's elaborate plots as well as his caricatures of the eccentric, often unsophisticated people who populate his writing.

Wilcox first introduced Tula Springs in short stories published in such periodicals as the New Yorker; he established his reputation as a novelist with Modern Baptists, which also takes place there. Located near a creosote plant and soon to accommodate a toxic waste disposal site, Tula Springs is home to a variety of characters ranging from movie theater ushers to cellists, social activists to hot-tub saleswomen. "It's the sort of town," noted New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, "where the Old Jefferson Davis Highway and Azalea Manor co-exist on the map with the Tiger Unisex Hair Styling Salon and Dick's China Nights restaurant." The critic went on to state that unlike many other Southern writers who explore themes of alienation characteristic of much contemporary fiction, Wilcox is concerned with "examining the comic possibilities afforded … by the clash of cultures and the acceleration of change."

Modern Baptists is the story of Bobby Pickens, the middle-aged assistant manager of Tula Springs's Sonny Boy Bargain Store. Believing that he is terminally ill, Pickens has invited his recently paroled half-brother F.X. to live with him, a decision that helps put into motion a complex plot involving mistaken identities and misinterpreted events. Pickens' life is further complicated by a chain of romantic entanglements: the already engaged Burma LaSteele loves him, while Toinette Quaid, the woman Pickens loves, is interested in F.X.

Critics found much to praise in Modern Baptists. Jim Crace, for example, appreciated the novel's authentic humor, noting in the Times Literary Supplement that Wilcox displays "a sophisticated control of comic pace, his humour [has] the chill of home truth, and his squibs at the expense of small-town America are rarely off-target." New York Times Book Review contributor Anne Tyler admired Wilcox's "sense of particularity—a granting of a full measure of individualism to the most incidental character, place or fact—that makes ‘Modern Baptists’ seem startlingly alive, exuberantly over-crowded." And Art Seidenbaum, writing for the Los Angeles Times, commented that Modern Baptists places the reader "in a community of lost industry and losing residents, in the company of absurd characters whose meager reaches exceed their minimal grasps." He continued: "We come to like them, because dimness is made lovable by down homeness."

Wilcox followed Modern Baptists with North Gladiola, a comedy that focuses on Ethyl Mae Coco, a forty-year resident of Tula Springs and the mother of six rather eccentric grown children. Bored with her marriage, disapproving of her children's occupations and spouses, and trying to believe in the Catholicism that she uses mainly to judge others, Mrs. Coco perseveres in her attempts to bring some culture to Tula Springs. She leads the Pro Arts Quartet, an ensemble that plays—for lack of better engagements—at such events as hamburger stand openings. She finds herself the object of the affections of violinist Duk-Soo Yoon, a middle-aged graduate student and tourism major at the nearby St. Jude State College, and faces personal crisis when the rumor mill links her to, among other scandals, the death of the local beauty school's pet Chihuahua. During the course of the novel, in which Pickens and several other characters from Modern Baptists also make appearances, Mrs. Coco reconciles her beliefs with her seemingly spiritually barren surroundings.

North Gladiola also won favor with reviewers, who considered the work subtler and less animated than Modern Baptists. Critics admired, for instance, Wilcox's sharp but compassionate presentation of the Tula Springs inhabitants. New York Times Book Review contributor Lisa Zeidner, in particular, praised the author's talent for creating "just the right combination of affection for and detachment from his characters." James Idema, writing in Chicago's Tribune Books, applauded a scene in which Mrs. Coco expresses her doubts about religion to a Tula Springs priest, who finds her confessions of uncertainty and questioning to be routine, inconsequential, and ultimately unresolvable. Describing the conversation as "a splendid set piece, a gentle fusion of humor and despair," Idema deemed North Gladiola "wise as well as witty." Zeidner noted as well Mrs. Coco's and Duk-Soo's contrasting outlooks, commenting that "the clash of [their] beliefs makes for fine intellectual slapstick, especially played out against the distinctly unintellectual backdrop of beauty pageants, diners, rodeos and Daughters of the American Revolution luncheons."

Wilcox's third novel, Miss Undine's Living Room, concerns, among several others, Olive Mackie, a fired city hall secretary who embarks on a political campaign for the Tula Springs office of Superintendent of Streets, Parks, and Garbage. Olive's political aspirations are endangered by the town's suspicion that her elderly step-great-uncle L.D. Loraine has murdered his home attendant, Mr. Versey, by pushing him out of the second floor window above the Sonny Boy Bargain Shop. Olive's personal life is disrupted, too, as she must contend with her crush on dental student Martin Bates, her unemployed and unfaithful husband, and her self-righteous son Felix, who lectures her about her behavior. The climax of the novel occurs in the parlor of Bates' landlady and ex-mother-in-law, Mrs. Undine, where Olive unravels the mystery of Mr. Versey's death.

Like Modern Baptists and North Gladiola, Miss Undine's Living Room was critically well received. "The novel is by turns hilarious, silly, tacky, tender, maddeningly digressive, and as brimming with off-the-wall canniness as any modern comedy of manners I know," declared Marianne Gingher in the Washington Post Book World. She added that "Miss Undine's Living Room feels as if it were peopled by a cast of thousands—mostly twangy loudmouths, all holding forth on assorted dissatisfactions and dilemmas." Village Voice contributor Walter Kendrick was similarly impressed with Wilcox's third book, noting that "each time out, Wilcox gets better—subtler, more complex, closer to the fusion of pathos and joy that makes for the highest comedy." And although New York Times contributor Kakutani criticized the novel's ending as too "contrived," Wilcox was judged as having "lost neither his gift for slapstick nor his instinct for finding and describing the incongruities of modern life."

Wilcox's fourth novel, Sort of Rich, also takes place in Tula Springs, but it centers on an outsider—a middle-aged native New Yorker who has recently married the successful entrepreneur and widower Frank Dambar. Moving to Tula Springs with her husband, Gretchen hopes to trade her Manhattan distractions for life in a quieter town, where she plans to finish a book about her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines. Her expectations for serenity are crushed, however, as she finds herself at odds with the strange members of Dambar's household, including Frank's niece, a bullying German housekeeper, and Leo, the enigmatic handyman. The complex plot of Sort of Rich unfolds with Dambar's sudden death, a visit from Gretchen's New York cousin Henry, and her associations with a private detective and a new therapist, who has a previous connection to Leo.

Reviews of Sort of Rich were mixed. Some critics saw the novel's characters as too superficial to be engaging. Other critics, however, were more enthusiastic; while finding less outright comedy in the themes of self-delusion and dashed expectations than in Wilcox's previous novels, reviewers nevertheless noted the humor contributing to the characterizations and plot. "Mr. Wilcox employs the zany eye for comic detail that has become a trademark of his fiction and makes his characters wholly original," remarked Jill McCorkle, for instance, in her New York Times Book Review critique. Similarly, a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that while the author's "antic humor is less evident" in Sort of Rich, it provides "an undercurrent to the pathos he evokes" in the novel. McCorkle also admired Sort of Rich's intricate narrative and commented that Wilcox "surrounds the facts of his plot with … amusing exchanges and outlandish speculation," adding that the author "gives us just enough slack in the story line to keep us off balance …; then with a sharp sobering twist in events he pulls it tightly together."

A number of critics have seemed to agree with Peter Heinegg's Los Angeles Times Book Review assessment that Wilcox "create[s] a thoroughly convincing and fully realized micro-universe in Tula Springs." And Rosemary Daniell, another New York Times Book Review writer, remarked that "life in Tula Springs is like that in a terrarium: looking from the outside in, we see everything; and the microcosm of small lives, small problems, makes amusing, even soothing, reading…. Wilcox has created a delicious little world." Concluded Zeidner: "Ten novels and a decade from now, we may know Mr. Wilcox's testy, endearing townsfolk as well as they know each other."

In a New Yorker profile of Wilcox by James B. Stewart, titled "Moby Dick in Manhattan," Stewart described the trajectory of Wilcox's career, from his childhood in Hammond, Louisiana, where his father taught him classical piano, to studies at Yale under such luminaries as Robert Penn Warren and Harold Bloom, to his job working with editor Albert Erskine at Random House in the early 1970s. James Michener, Stewart reported, had been so happy with Wilcox's comments on the manuscript of his novel Centennial that he invited the young editor to travel anywhere in Europe at his expense; thus Wilcox got to spend ten days in Paris in 1974, courtesy of the famous author. But he was restless to become a famous author himself, especially because his coworker Toni Morrison had already published two books, so eventually he went out on his own.

By the early 1990s Wilcox had published two more novels, each of which takes place far from the setting of the previous four. Both are set in New York, although the 1991 release, Polite Sex, involves characters from Tula Springs. In this work, Emily Brix arrives in the big city hoping for a career as a serious actress, but instead she lands a job reading scripts at a shabby production company and winds up dating an unromantic seminary student. Hugh Vanderbilt asks Emily to marry him because she "did not exhaust him with her wiles, her need for attention. Neither was he distracted by passion or lust." Emily accepts his proposal, and the results—which the reader witnesses in another part of the book, set twenty years later—are predictably dreary. Meanwhile, things go quite differently for Clara Edward Tilman, who came to New York to get away from her boyfriend, F.X. from Modern Baptists. Clara gets an acting job, albeit in a soap opera, and takes as a lover a man who had once been a friend of Emily's. Naturally Emily is jealous of all this, especially in light of the fact that Clara is her little sister's best friend, a mere upstart.

A number of reviewers noted that the humor was more muted in Polite Sex than in its four predecessors. Elinor Lipman, contributor to the New York Times Book Review assumed that this was intentional: "Mr. Wilcox doesn't draw as much on his comedic talents throughout ‘Polite Sex’ as readers of his four earlier novels … might expect. But we trust that this is deliberate, that he cares too much about these characters to make us laugh at them out loud." A critic in Kirkus Reviews concluded that the book had "little humor to steer it straight," and a Publishers Weekly contributor observed that "a jolting last-minute revelation comes too late [to give] this tale the poignancy and credibility it never quite achieves." But a Booklist commentator held that "Wilcox writes with empathy, depicting the light and restless sleep of those with shattered dreams."

Wilcox was on firmer ground with Guest of a Sinner, another story set in New York, but without any characters from Tula Springs. The plot is a comedy of errors centering around the gorgeous but aloof Eric Thorsen, a fortyish pianist; Wanda Skopinski, a secretary with a crush on him; and Una Merton, an eighty-three-year-old woman with twenty-two cats. The plot revolves in part around a struggle to acquire a rent-controlled apartment, but there are numerous subplots and quirky peripheral characters. "What a nest of ninnies!" Eric Kraft wrote in a delighted tone for the New York Times Book Review. He concluded by listing the characters' many foibles and absurdities, and ended with the pronouncement: "In short, they would be exactly like everyone else if James Wilcox hadn't made them much funnier." Cheryl Mercer in Chicago's Tribune Books noted that "the author is sympathetic and affectionate toward this motley group, and adept at enticing the reader to be patient with them, too." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly observed that Wilcox had "recover[ed] his characteristic wit," and Time magazine began a short blurb with the announcement: "Come along, fiction lovers, James Wilcox writes your kind of book." Eloise Kinney, writing in Booklist called it "a fine, funny read," and Carolyn See wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Guest of a Sinner would "help to explain to Los Angeles-lovers why New Yorkers are so homesick." Speaking as a New Yorker, and very much caught up in the spirit of the book, See concluded with the words: "Everyone here ends up very happily, and the best part of all, when absolutely everything is said and done, there seems at the end to be one or two or even three relatively new, absolutely usable, attractive apartments in the extended family, and they're all rent-controlled."

In Plain and Normal, Wilcox introduces readers to Severinus Lloyd Norris, who grew up in Tula Springs, Louisiana, and had a somewhat conventional life, including getting his high school girl friend Pearl Fay pregnant, marrying her, and then, once she lost the baby, discovering it hadn't been his after all. But things really shifted for Lloyd when Pearl Fay decided she wanted to remarry, which seemed a good reason to encourage Lloyd to admit to being gay. So starts a bizarre romp of determining one's true identity and how to handle the intolerances of the world. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly opined that the book does not quite live up to Wilcox's previous efforts, stating: "This novel is a comedy of errors that tickles the funny bone but fails to tug at the heartstrings in the way that Wilcox's fans have come to expect."

Heavenly Days returns readers to Tula Springs, Louisiana, a full twenty years after Wilcox first described it in Modern Baptists. The book focuses on Lou Jones, formerly a college music professor, but more recently working as a receptionist for a makeover company called "WaistWatch." Wilcox has populated the story with a variety of characters, including Lou's friend Maigrite, a fellow employee at WaistWatch with one leg that is shorter than the other. Even though Maigrite is justified in parking in the company's handicapped spot, she insists on taking Lou's space instead—also near the door, but not labeled in any telling manner. Trying to help her friend, Lou attempts to repaint the handicapped space with more neutral beige lines, but needless to say, her efforts merely get her into trouble. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "Wilcox's eye for the telling detail is as unerring as ever," and noted that, despite a simple storyline with very little action, he "manages to make some subtle points about such serious issues as racial and religious tolerance." Booklist reviewer Nancy Pearl wrote: "Wilcox's comic sensibility and compassionate heart animate this bitter-sweetly humorous novel." Patricia T. O'Conner, reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, observed of Wilcox: "In the end, what governs his characters isn't their strengths or talents or wisdom, all of which they have in abundance. It's their weaknesses, their failures, their utter cluelessness. You can recognize them by their flattened toes."

Hunk City: A Novel, brings back some of the Tula Springs residents that Wilcox originally introduced to readers in his earlier novel, Modern Baptists. He focuses on Burma Van Buren, the assistant manager of Redds Dollar Store, now a wealthy woman following the death of her husband. However, Burma wants to give a large portion of her inheritance to charity and is having a hard time determining what organizations to choose. Wilcox continues to preach tolerance through his set of off-beat characters. Joanne Wilkinson, reviewing for Booklist, remarked that "Wilcox effortlessly conveys the charm of southern eccentrics." A contributor for Kirkus Reviews called the book "enormous fun, and arguably the author's best since the sublime Modern Baptists."



Advocate, September 29, 1998, Robert Plunket, review of Plain and Normal, p. 69.

Book, September 1, 2003, Steve Wilson, review of Heavenly Days, p. 90.

Booklist, May 1, 1991, review of Polite Sex, p. 1695; March 15, 1993, Eloise Kinney, review of Guest of a Sinner, p. 1300; September 1, 2003, Nancy Pearl, review of Heavenly Days, p. 63; March 1, 2007, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Hunk City: A Novel, p. 66.

Entertainment Weekly, October 30, 1998, review of Plain and Normal, p. 108; March 30, 2007, Karen Karbo, review of Hunk City, p. 78.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1991, review of Polite Sex, pp. 359-60; July 1, 2003, review of Heavenly Days, p. 883; February 1, 2007, review of Hunk City, p. 98.

Library Journal, August, 1998, Jo Manning, review of Plain and Normal, p. 136.

Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1983, Art Seidenbaum, review of Modern Baptists.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 1, 1991, Pete Heinegg, profile of James Wilcox, p. 6.

New Yorker, June 27, 1994, James B. Stewart, profile of James Wilcox, pp. 46-60; October 26, 1998, review of Plain and Normal, p. 246.

New York Times, August 12, 1987, Michiko Kakutani, profile of James Wilcox; September 11, 2003, "Ostrich Feathers amid Spanish Moss," p. 8.

New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1983, Anne Tyler, review of Modern Baptists; June 30, 1985, Lisa Zeidner, review of North Gladiola; October 18, 1987, Rosemary Daniell, review of Miss Undine's Living Room; May 28, 1989, Jill McCorkle, review of Sort of Rich; July 7, 1991, Elinor Lipman, review of Polite Sex, p. 10; May 16, 1993, Eric Kraft, review of Guest of a Sinner, p. 18; September 21, 2003, Patricia T. O'Conner, "Trouble in Tula Springs," p. 5.

Publishers Weekly, March 17, 1989, review of Sort of Rich; April 26, 1991, review of Polite Sex, p. 47; February 22, 1993, review of Guest of a Sinner, p. 83; July 6, 1998, review of Plain and Normal, p. 48; September 1, 2003, review of Heavenly Days, p. 65; December 7, 2003, review of Heavenly Days, p. 66; April 22, 2007, "Hello, Stranger," p. 34.

Times Literary Supplement, January 20, 1984, Jim Crace, review of Modern Baptists.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 7, 1985, James Idema, review of North Gladiola; April 25, 1993, Cheryl Mercer, review of Guest of a Sinner, pp. 14-18.

Village Voice, August 25, 1987, Walter Kendrick, review of Miss Undine's Living Room.

Washington Post Book World, August 16, 1987, Marianne Gingher, review of Miss Undine's Living Room.