At first glance, Willie Morris‘ The Courting of Marcus Dupree had all the ingredients for a Kelly Lowenstein favorite and early candidate for Top Books of 2011 (I say this beyond the fact that is the first book I’ve read this year.).
Race. History. Memory. High school football. A town trying to move beyond one of the most heinous acts of the civil rights era. And a white son of the South returning in middle age to his home state to witness the recruitment of a young black man with prodigious talent.
Although Marcus Dupree’s college and pro careers were considered major disappointments by many people-Jonathan Hock titled his 30 for 30 film about Dupree The Best That Never Was-Morris’ book does not.
The Courting’s ostensible purpose is to witness and describe Dupree’s senior year and the inordinate amount of attention he got from recruiters as he gradually winnowed his list of potential colleges to attend from the hundreds that called to a dozen or so that he visited to his final eight, four, two and ultimate choice.
But the book covers a lot more than that.
A native of Yazoo, Mississippi who left his home region to head North in search of personal fulfillment and professional glory, Morris provides a deep meditation on the state and the region in the book.
Much of it has to do with memory.
By this I mean Morris’ own childhood memories-he repeatedly compares the scenes in Philadelphia with those that emanate within him in a Proustian fashion of Yazoo-and the memories of an oppressive and often brutal history.
In addition to being the site of Ronald Reagan’s first post-convention address, Philadelphia was the community where civil rights works James Cheney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed in one of the civil rights movement’s most painful moments.
Morris goes back into that pain and carves out space to reflect on how far the town had or had not progressed in the close to 20 years since those brutal murders.
He notes that Dupree is a member of the first class of students in Mississippi who attended racially integrated elementary and secondary schools. Furthermore, his gifts are so great and so unusual that at moments he appears to have some curative powers.
One of the book’s more memorable images is that of Cecil Price, one of the men who served jail time for the murders, standing and cheering for Dupree as he chases fellow schoolboy legend Herschel Walker’s record for most touchdowns in a career.
At the same time, Morris is careful both not to overstate Dupree’s impact and to point out that Philadelphia had as many Choctaw people who suffered a different and related bloody history as black folks.
A gifted story with an enormously rich vocabulary-I had to look up what ‘perfervid’ meant, for example-and a deep, deep sense of place, Morris skillfully weaves together the strands of personal reckoning, Dupree’s recruitment and decision, and the town and region’s history.
A major component of his method is through the insertion throughout the book of the words of writers ranging from the obligatory authors like William Faulkner to lines from poets like T.S. Eliot to fellow journalists like Hodding Carter III to Philadelphia residents like Florence Mars, who wrote an account of the three civil rights workers’ murders.
The inclusion of other authors not only showcases Morris’ erudition, it also puts his keen details of place and personal memories in a deeper and richer context.
He also paints a sympathetic portrait of the bespectacled Dupree, whose words begin many of the book’s chapters. Morris shows a 17-year-old based in family who displays great tenderness toward his younger brother Reggie, who has cerebral palsy, and who handles the almost unprecedented levels of scrutiny and attention with humility and class.
He also skillfully builds the tension about Dupree’s decision, showing how he initially committed to, then pulled back from, the University of Texas before settling on Oklahoma University after Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims escorted him on his campus visit.
One of the book’s more heartening images is of a ceremony in February of his senior year where adults of all backgrounds come together to honor Dupree and his extraordinary accomplishments. Morris follows the story through his freshman year, which built and finished on a record-setting bowl game performance.
Unfortunately, the epilogue is far less cheery.
Dupree battled with weight gain and, like so many running backs before and after him, a devastating knee injury that robbed him of his mobility.
I’ve not yet seen the Hock film, but have read enough to know that Dupree is now a 46-year-old who drives trucks part time and struggles to get by.
If the disappointment of his post high school career is great, then so too are the thrills he provided during that time.
As a white, middle-aged man who recently returned to his home community and who remembered a letter Morris wrote to my mother after she wrote him about Yazoo, his childhood memoir, I am grateful to Morris for his work and Dupree for his Olympian high school performances, even if his later life has been decidedly earthbound.