Chad Nance, a journalist and — of late — a political operative and whistleblower who has returned to his hometown of Winston-Salem, holds a high threshold of tolerance for weirdness.
Nance is a great storyteller, and this is a rollicking rip of a read. A chronicle of the counterculture over the past decade, Nance floats between the protest marches and bucolic boogie communities of the summer festival circuit. He’s the protagonist of the story, and also the filter through which the strange phenomena of our times starts to make some sense. He tells me Tom Wolfe is his biggest influence, and like the man in white, Nance’s primary objective is to nail the culture.
But the imprint of Hunter S. Thompson is unmistakable here. The savage outcry against political hypocrisy and shallowness that was the hallmark of Generation of Swine roars out of these pages. And similar to the gonzo journalist’s classics, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, drugs are Nance’s indispensable tool for tackling the adventure and he gravitates towards politics as a refuge for the true misfits. The journalistic assignment is the plot device that moves the story forward.
Nance was the political editor of Skunk Magazine, aligning himself with the pot-legalization movement. As one who adheres to an outlaw code of honor, he moves seamlessly between the inner city of north Richmond, Va., subsisting on an underground economy of drugs and day labor, and the boogie-down Blue Ridge Mountains, a place of hardened survivalists who maintain a bootlegging spirit.
Nance’s vision is never sharper than when he describes going underground with a group of former Navy SEALs who migrated to Canada to grow pot, putting their military expertise to use in clandestine operations for profit and livelihood. There are dark passages, as with an unsuccessful mission on the Skunk expense account to make arrangements in Las Vegas to destroy a cow with an RPG. The author’s focus on hedonism, on one hand, and principled support for marijuana legalization, racial justice in Jena, La. and marriage equality, on the other, mark the tension of this book.
The jarring quality of the journey reveals something essential: that our nation has gone off the rails, and even our countercultural diversions are an effort to cope with the rank venality of the powers that order our reality. Oddly enough, the author gets swept up in the excitement of the 2008 Obama campaign – an antidote to meaninglessness and alienation. But even he recognizes the folly of placing too much faith in a political savior.
“I have tried, in my way, to make sense of it all – to reconcile myself with the physical and emotional violence I have witnessed since 2003 when the first bombs fell on Baghdad and my heartbreak started,” Nance writes.
HillBilly Highway and can be found at Barnhill’s, located at 811 Burke St. in Winston-Salem. Store manager Stacy Castanedo is an avid reader who works diligently to stock books by local writers and releases by area publishers. Other recently published books available at Barnhill’s include:
• From Victim to Victory, by Regina K. Lane and Dr. Linda F. Felker, Second Wind Publishing, 2012
A release of Second Wind Publishing in Kernersville, From Victim to Victory is the graphic, firsthand account of Regina K. Lane, known as the “Integon victim” in Winston-Salem Journal reports from the mid-1980s, who was brutally raped and beaten in an attack that bore striking similarities to the murder of Deborah Sykes.
Lane identified Willard Brown as her attacker in a police lineup, but police did not charge him. She writes that she suggested to a police detective that Brown might also be responsible for Sykes’ murder. The police were not interested because they apparently didn’t want to complicate their efforts to prosecute Darryl Hunt — only one of several ways she says the department mishandled the investigation.
As the world now knows, Hunt was falsely convicted of Sykes’ murder and spent 19 years in prison before being exonerated and released. Lane learned from a Winston-Salem police detective and an SBI investigator in 2003 that her hunch had been correct: Brown was the man who attacked her and murdered Sykes.
• The Cove, by Ron Rash, published by CCCO/Harper Collins Publishers, 2012
Penned by Western Carolina University professor Ron Rash, this novel is set during World War I in a small town in Appalachia, and focuses on a witch and her brother, who has returned from the trenches of France.
• Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program and the Campaign for Reparations, by Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey and Scott Sexton, Gray Oak Books, originally published in 2002, reprinted in 2003, 2004, 2011 and 2012
A collection of stories from the Winston-Salem Journal’s landmark series about North Carolina’s shameful sterilization program, the most recent reprint is timely, with the state apparently on the verge of compensating the victims.
• All Good Things, by Leigh Somerville, Second Wind Publishing, 2012
This book, written by Winston-Salem resident and Twin City Stage marketing director Leigh Somerville, is set in Washington, DC and features protagonist Rachel Springer, who is considering marriage for the first time at the age of 62. Themes include the resilience of true love and second chances. Recommended beach reading.
• Sending Christmas Cards to Huck & Hamlet, by Jeff Mills, Press 53, 2012
In one of the poems, “Scaping,” in this collection by UNC School of the Arts teacher Jeff Mills, he writes insightfully about an immigrant laborer holding up a plant and asking what it’s called. The foreman responds, “Those are called get to f***ing work. You don’t need to know what those are f***ing called. You just need to put them in the ground.” The poem continues: “In any language, it’s the same: To be transplanted means having to endure hands pruning things away. Even names. Even the desire to know names.”
• The Naming of Ghosts, by Steve Mitchell, Press 53, 2012
Also published by Press 53, a Winston-Salem imprint, this collection of short stories showcases an engaging vernacular style and features characters that seem to be adrift or at the edge of their wits.