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CARPE LIBRUM: The perfect summer read, featuring great stories about our area

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Crazy Beach Vol. II: Crazier Beach
L.R. Welborn
Federal Point Books, 2019, pgs. 319

Summer is the time for the great American road trip and there are few books perfect for such a tim-honored occasion. Aside from the classics like Kerouac’s “On The Road” or Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” L. R. Welborn’s “Crazy Beach” series is at the top of my list.

The first installment of his memoir growing up around Carolina Beach in the ‘60s and ‘70s chronicles stowing away in a VW bus to go to Woodstock (yes—the original outdoor festival in America), falling in love, and solving the mystery of the arson connected to Wave Cinema on the Boardwalk. Along the way, he discovered drugs, booze, rock n’ roll, gambling, shifting politics of life in mid-century American South, and introduced us to some of the great icons of our area: Britt’s Donuts, Chicken Hicks and Mr. Robert, a.k.a. The Fort Fisher Hermit. What he was really doing with the book was learning how to write a book.

The second volume is the product of the lessons. The structure is solid, the writing is compelling, and the story takes the reader on an arc into adulthood. It’s so beautiful, I was crying on the last page.

Readers don’t have to be familiar with volume one to appreciate or understand two (but it wouldn’t hurt). Welborn has created a braided story; he takes three strands: his big post-high-school hitchhiking adventure, treasure hunting with the Hermit, and an attempt to navigate treacherous waters of young love with Darlene. Folks who read volume one will remember Welborn’s voice is not that of a detached narrator or even an adult reminiscing. He is the life of the party—sitting on the back porch with a cold beer retelling the best and most heart-wrenching but entertaining tales of life.

For many people, the Fort Fisher Hermit was a huge tourist attraction. Actually, he was the second biggest draw in the state, just behind our own USS NC. He lived in an abandoned WWII bunker at the far tip of Fort Fisher. Known to locals as “Mr. Robert,” he was a harmless kook, a dispenser of wisdom, or part of the scenery, depending upon one’s opinions. Welborn and his friends would hang out with Mr. Robert on occasion, and on one particularly memorable afternoon, he and two friends got invited to go treasure hunting on Bald Head Island with Mr. Robert. Mind you, this is before regular ferry service began.

They load their bikes on the new ferry to Southport from Fort Fisher and hire a guy with a boat to take them and to come back to fetch them from Bald Head. As luck would have it, a tropical storm hits the island while they are there and they take refuge in the then abandoned lighthouse. Welborn uses this part of the book to do what good nonfiction should: communicate information like the history of the beach, the island and the lighthouse, in a way that entertains. Readers don’t get so lost in the info about the history of Bald Head or Smith Island during the Revolution and the Civil wars to stop caring about the story—nor does the story pale in relation to the information it conveys. Welborn manages what all writers seek: to blend the two seamlessly (though the perfection of that isn’t evident until the very final page).

Mr. Robert is still a legend, and his murder remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of our state. That Welborn lets us in, if only for a little while, on daily life with him—not the show he put on for the tourists, but the real day-to-day makeup of Mr. Robert—is reason alone to buy the two volumes.

The other two threads of the story, meanwhile, are what the rest of us can relate to: family life and expectations, young love, and lust, and figuring out how to balance our angels and demons. Darlene, the focus of young Welborn, is also a very close family friend. Their dads are best friends and for a time they are neighbors. Who among us cannot relate to the intensity of emotion and devotion adolescence brings? For me at least, that level of monomania and nearly insane obsession is something I am glad has mellowed. Welborn takes us right back there—without sentimentality or nostalgic sugar-coating.

What happens in the wake of Darlene and the end of high school is the road-trip adventure of a lifetime: hitchhiking across the U.S. with his best bud. The excitement Welborn gets into is what great movies are made of: four beautiful young women kidnapping them, escaping an orange farm in Florida, and playing drums as the last-minute replacement for a music legend are just a few of the highlights.

Welborn asked me a couple of times if I read volume two yet, and I kept telling him I was saving it. Last week, I finally got to take a short road trip and read it in one day. That is where you should read his book—while on the road. It is what all really great stories are … a journey. Welborn’s blending of the trip with Mr. Robert, his hitchhike and Darlene come together to paint an epic coming -of-age picture about accepting your role as an adult and honoring the lessons that brought you there. Those lessons are often two sides of the same coin, painful and joyful. It is a rare person who can recognize and embrace such lessons so early.

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