Andrews, Raymond 1934–1991
Raymond Andrews 1934–1991
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly once declared that “Raymond Andrews is an extraordinary writer—a true and absolutely original American voice.” Though his career was cut tragically short, in the span of just 13 years Andrews produced five books that drew readers into a quirky, frightening, and entertaining world of his own inventive design. Andrews’s deeply personal approach to writing combines angry social commentary, bawdiness, and supernatural elements into a style that reviewers find at once shocking, tragic, and uproariously funny. Many note that at the heart of his unique literary voice is a mastery of the art of storytelling; Al Young of the Washington Post wrote: “One of the delights of Raymond Andrews’s style is that he writes as though readers were close by, listening to him tell these stories out loud to them, one-on-one.”
According to some critics, Andrews’s ability to weave a complex web of memorable characters and vivid images, and combine it with an irresistible narrative flow, places the author in line with master American storytellers such as William Faulkner and Mark Twain; it also evokes the long and rich oral tradition of his own African-American heritage. Andrews himself summed up his talent when he told Black Writers that “to me, there was nothing better than a good story.”
The hardships of Andrews’s youth, vividly portrayed in his 1990 memoir The Last Radio Baby, provided raw material for much of his later work. Born the son of sharecroppers in Morgan County, Georgia, near Madison, he first worked on his parents’ farm, and then at 15 moved to Atlanta where he attended Washington High School. Though he came from a community in which most could not read, and he was faced with a highly ineffective educational system, Andrews never lost sight of his goal; as he told Black Writers, “In the back of my head a writer was what I wanted to be most of all, and I couldn’t help but feel that someday, somehow, I would write.”
After a four-year tour of duty in the U.S. Air Force, Andrews moved to New York City and took a job as a reservations agent for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. He spent more than eight years in the position, but all the while his urge to make a career as an author grew progressively stronger. Finally, on the day of his thirty-second birthday, Andrews suddenly walked off the job. He told Black Writers: “I went home and had my telephone disconnected.
Born June 6, 1934, in Morgan County, GA; committed suicide November 26, 1991, in Athens, GA; son of George Cleveland (a sharecropper) and Viola (a sharecropper; maiden name, Perryman) Andrews; married Adelheid Wenger (an airline sales agent), December 28, 1966 (divorced June 2, 1980). Education: Attended Michigan State University, 1956-57.
Author. Prior to graduating from high school worked as a hospital orderly, 1949-51, and as a bartender, busboy, dishwasher, and stockroom worker, 1951-52; later worked as a postal mail sorter, 1956, and as a stockroom clerk, 1957; KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, New York City, reservations agent, 1958-66; pursued writing career, beginning in 1966; Pix Photographers, librarian, 1967-72; Archer Courier Systems, New York City, messenger, telephone operator, night dispatcher, and bookkeeper, 1972-84; first book, Appalachee Red, published in 1978. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1952-56.
Awards: James Baldwin Prize for Fiction, 1978, for Appalachee Red.
The next morning… I told myself, ’you are going to write.’ And I’ve been at it ever since.”
In 1978 Andrews’s first novel, Appalachee Red, was published by Dial. The main plot of the story concerns a young black woman named Little Bit, wife of Big Man Thompson and mistress of a prominent white citizen named John Morgan. While Thompson is in jail, Little Bit has a son by Morgan; the boy becomes known as Appalachee Red because of the color of his hair. Sent north as a child, Appalachee returns 50 years later to take revenge on his father and his hometown by openly seducing Morgan’s daughter.
In his first book Andrews creates the town of Appalachee. In the center of mythical Muskhogean County in Georgia, Appalachee is a locale that Young described as being to the author’s fiction “what Mississippi’s Yoknapatawpha County was to Faulkner’s: a regional universe vast enough to contain all the stories he loved to tell.” Andrews’s universe is considered in some ways a hard-edged and often brutal Southern version of author Garrison Keillor’s fictitious Lake Wobegon.
Like Keillor, Andrews peoples his universe with a cast of unforgettable characters, including the beautiful young dancer Baby Sweet, whom the author describes with his typical blend of graceful lyricism and steamy sensuality: “The growing girl’s high-cheekboned and tar-black face was accentuated by a pair of pointed lashes reaching far out over full-moon-shaped eyes whose egg-like whiteness, and quickness, rivaled that of her high-pitched Mississippi-marble-toothed smile which, after having sliced its way through a thick set of sensuous, jelly-soft lips, was known to light up without the least bit of forewarning.”
Also like Keillor, Andrews centers much of the action of his novels on vividly drawn locales. Like Lake Wobegone’s Chatterbox Café, an important meeting place in Appalachee is Sam’s Café, a popular restaurant that features on its menu “the anatomy of the pig” in its many forms. With what many consider a masterful attention to detail, Andrews creates an environment where the reader can almost smell the barbecue sauce, hear the clatter of plates and the clinking of glasses, and listen to snippets of gossip told by the town’s colorful inhabitants.
Reviewers have observed that the vividness of Andrews’s writing in Appalachee Red is complemented by the eerie, stylized line drawings of the author’s brother Benny. A successful artist in his own right whose work may be found in the collections of many leading museums (including New York’s Museum of Modern Art), Benny Andrews illustrated each of his brother’s novels. His work, according to critics, adds much to the impact of Andrews’s narrative, yet never distracts from the powerful mental images created by the author’s language.
Appalachee Red was a critical success; Janet Boyarin Blundell of Library Journal described it as “a pungent, witty and powerful first novel,” and Publishers Weekly called Andrews “an extremely gifted storyteller in the best Southern revivalist tradition.” The book was also awarded the first James Baldwin Prize for fiction. Andrews used the novel as the foundation for a trilogy that was continued with Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee in 1980 and brought to a close three years later with Baby Sweet’s.
The title character of Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee —based on Andrews’s own grandmother—is a beautiful woman, part Native American and part black, who arrives in Appalachee in 1906. She inquires after “the richest man in this heah town” and soon takes a job as housekeeper of the plantation of one of Appalachee’s wealthiest white citizens, George MacAndrew. She becomes the mistress of George’s son Ira and bears his child. Years later, when Rosiebelle Lee is on her deathbed, Andrews traces the lives of her offspring, a collection of characters that a critic for the New Yorker described as “freckled and black, mousy and raffish, proud masters of everything from a mule to a motorcar to a pig that trees possums.” The novel uses techniques borrowed from the folk myth to provide a searing commentary on the political and racial tensions in a small Southern town.
Baby Sweet’s is the name of a brothel in Appalachee that serves as the focus for Andrews’s third novel. The book centers on a single day, Independence Day, 1966, and examines the intermingling of races in the brothel, in which black prostitutes cater to a mainly white clientele. The author portrays the complex scenario with both empathy and humor. As David Guy wrote in his review of Baby Sweet’s for the Washington Post, “The characters are larger than life and often seem to represent phenomena as much as they do flesh and blood human beings.” Guy praised Andrews “for his raucous and robust humor, his really profound knowledge of the South, his ultimately accepting and benign vision—of a world in which blacks and whites sometimes hate and mistreat one another but ultimately arrive at an understanding—and most of all for the entertaining voice that tells the stories.”
This trilogy assured Andrews’s place as one of the most promising African-American storytellers of the latter part of the twentieth century; yet, Andrews’s idiosyncratic writing style occasionally drew criticism as well. Guy noted that the construction of his novels was at times haphazard and contained episodes in which “long passages of exposition precede and interrupt his central scene.” And Janet Boyarin Blundell found that Andrews was at times too discursive; she criticized the “folksy, meandering beginning” of Appalachee Red for detracting from the novel’s climax.
Reviewers of the trilogy observed the debt Andrews owed to his own cultural heritage. Guy wrote that “Andrews’ writing stems from a black oral tradition and could effectively be read aloud.” And Frederick Busch of the New York Times noted the resemblance of Andrews’s style to forms of black music, claiming that Baby Sweet’s “is a novel chanted to achieve the feeling of blues.” Indeed, the African-American musical tradition is an important thread throughout Andrews’s work: Doris Virginia, one of the characters in Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee, listens to the records of blues guitarist Tampa Red on her Victrola, and throughout the final chapter of Baby Sweet’s, Andrews interpolates song lyrics and has one of the characters sing the following tragic lines from a blues passage: “I’m so lonesome, I’m so lonesome, / Hear me crying, / Baby, I ain’t lying. / I’m so lonesome, / Lonesome Atlanta blues.” Busch has even suggested that Andrews’s frequent use of literary clichés, such as “forever etched” or “attention is lavished,” is akin to the “riffs,” or recurring musical phrases, of a jazz musician.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Andrews continued to write while supporting himself with other jobs, first as a librarian for Pix Photographers, and later as a messenger, telephone operator, night dispatcher, and bookkeeper for Archer Courier in New York City. In 1990 he wrote The Last Radio Baby, a memoir of his early life in Georgia. J. D. Reed of People called Andrews’s memoir, with its folksy treatment of the author’s family history, “a cross between Roots and A Prairie Home Companion,” portraying a childhood “filled with simple pleasures, complex mischief and bittersweet awakenings.”
The book follows Andrews’s first 15 years, before his move to Atlanta, and introduces the reader to such quirky characters as his brother Johnny, who develops a pathological fear of cotton, and his Uncle Toodney, a taxi driver in Madison. The book’s title refers to Andrews’s early fascination with radio; as a young child he would peer into the back of the set to see where the voices came from.
Later his imagination was fueled by broadcasts of radio dramas such as The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon. Thomas Davis of Library Journal praised The Last Radio Baby, writing that “Andrews musters a parade of regional color that reveals the substance and shape of rural kinship and community.” The author was apparently already at work on a second volume of memoirs, Once Upon a Time in Atlanta, when the first appeared, but the book was not published during his lifetime.
Andrews produced his fourth and final novel, Jessie and Jesus and Cousin Claire, in 1991. This book, which is divided in two parts and is once again set in Appalachee, was praised by Pam Perry of the Atlanta Journal as offering “two novellas of dark comic power that deftly combine tragedy and farce to reveal deep undercurrents of emotional truth.” A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also applauded the work, writing that “replete with racy trysts, colorful characters and cheeky humor, Andrews’s book entertains and educates on the follies of human nature.”
This final work centers on the lives of three black women. In the first half of the book, Jessie Mitchell, a shrewd and manipulative young businesswoman, first seduces and then rejects a series of suitors, including an ex-con, a teacher at her high school, a funeral-parlor heir, and a minister. However, Jesus, the girlfriend of one of the suitors, disrupts Jessie’s life; she begins to wander about Jessie’s dairy farm, seeking recompense for the loss of her lover and ultimately teaching Jessie the meaning of “conscience.”
The heroine of the second half of the book is Cousin Claire, a deceptively soft-voiced and self-effacing character who comes to Appalachee to care for a dying cancer victim, Luella Hemphill. She slyly infiltrates the entire Hemphill family, earning the trust of Luella’s husband, Oscar, and their son Clarence, as well as Clarence’s wife, Lizzie Lee, who spends her days in front of the TV watching Ruby Dee movies. Cousin Claire ultimately shows a dark side made all the more shocking because of her charming and genteel manner. As Sandra D. Davis wrote in the Detroit Free Press, both stories use Andrews’s “familiarity with the region and his mastery of storytelling to create two characters who use contrasting methods of operation while proving that hate is thicker than blood.”
The intense sadness that lurks behind the rollicking tales in Andrews’s last book might betray the personal turmoil of his own life at the time. It may be, as Davis wrote, that the book “represents a final message about love, hate, or the absence of hope.” Whatever the case, his early death prevented the creation of more lively tales about this fictional Georgia town. On November 26, 1991, just a month after the release of Jessie and Jesus and Cousin Claire, Raymond Andrews took his own life. Admirers of Andrews feel that his death, apparently brought on by despondency over ill health, silenced one of the most gifted and original writers of his generation.
Appalachee Red, Dial, 1978.
Rosiebelle Lee Wildcat Tennessee, Dial, 1980.
Baby Sweet’s, Dial, 1983.
The Last Radio Baby: A Memoir, Peachtree, 1990.
Jessie and Jesus and Cousin Claire, Peachtree, 1991.
Also author of article “Black Boy and Man in the Small-Town South,” Atlanta Journal, 1988; contributor to Sports Illustrated and Ataraxia.
Andrews, Raymond, Appalachee Red, Dial, 1978.
Andrews, Raymond, Baby Sweet’s, Dial, 1983.
Black Writers, Gale, 1989.
Atlanta Journal, November 10, 1991; November 28, 1991.
Detroit Free Press, December 22, 1991.
Library Journal, October 1, 1978; May 15, 1980; October 15, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1980; July 24, 1983.
New Yorker, August 11, 1980.
People, February 25, 1991.
Publishers Weekly, July 24, 1978; May 2, 1980; August 30, 1991.
Washington Post Book World, July 31, 1983; November 29, 1991; February 16, 1992.