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, John F. 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 or maybe even 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: Disc One
L. R. Welborn
2018, pgs. 368
LR. Welborn has put together a memoir that reads like a Simpson’s episode if it traced Bart from age 11 to 16. Set in and around Carolina Beach in the late 1960s, it is a fabulous coming-of-age tale, told in first person. Welborn uses events as the spine of the narrative—surrounding he and his friend Davey sowing away in a VW camper bus Davey’s sister and her boyfriend took to Woodstock. The sister and boyfriend didn’t notice their additional passengers until Richmond, VA. In spite of a forced confessional phone call home, Welborn and his buddy were still among the youngest gate crashers at the mythic music festival. Their adventure is interspersed with tales of exploits around the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, including young love and entrepreneurship.
Locals familiar with local history will realize parts of the memoir read like a greatest hits list. He spends time around a campfire with Mister Robert, also known as “The Fort Fisher Hermit.” The hermit was one of North Carolina’s star tourist attractions, and his death remains one of the great unsolved crimes in our area. Our protagonist works at Britt’s Donut Shop—the landmark of the Boardwalk. The description of the donut-making process is mouthwatering and intensifies any latent donut cravings. He also doesn’t shy away from some tougher parts of our history: When did “The Academy,” as he refers to the private high school in the area, start and why? Why did some of his friends go to school there and others didn’t?
For all the crazy escapades he recounts, (and some of them are very crazy—like crazy to the point of questioning the wisdom of putting them in print), what emerges is actually a very touching and compelling story of young consciousness. In the midst of his exploits, he has to make choices, live with the consequences, and learns a lot about himself and what he thinks is important. Young love isn’t easy, but it is a rite of passage that sets the tone for so much of how we view personal relationships that come afterward. Though Welborn is at best an anti-hero in his own memoir, he does it all as a gentleman with a big heart.
There are several pieces of the picture that make this book compelling—and I mean compelling. By the last six pages I told both of my dogs they were going to have stop asking for a W-A-L-K until I finished!
Welborn writes exactly the way he speaks. Reading the book is like spending an afternoon with him telling stories. There is no fourth wall. There is not narrative distance. He also grows as a storyteller as his character experiences more and understands more of what is occurring around him. That’s not easy to pull off in prose, especially with a memoir. Jeanne Houston does it really well in “Farewell to Manzanar.” Welborn accomplishes it, too, and the audience grows with him.
Now, I admit: There are a lot of reasons I am predisposed to like “Crazy Beach”: Volkswagens, for one. The spine tale of the book involves traveling cross-country in a camper van to, of all places, Woodstock. It’s like someone wrapped up two of my favorite preoccupations and put them in one book. There is also a dog that belongs to one of Welborn’s friends. Obviously, I would be hooked. But his descriptions of seeing the acts at Woodstock live are worth every penny: Santana and his epic set; the author’s homage to Janis Joplin and what seeing her live was like. With the Stones still touring, it can be hard for some of us to really realize with Pearl we are talking about less than a decade of performances. Are you going to stay awake for The Who? What about when Abbie Hoffman burst onto stage in the middle of their set? His description of a sleepy morning electrified by Jimi Hendrix and caped with a dip in the pond—in lieu of a shower before loading up the van to start the long drive back to Carolina Beach—it’s like a magical morning that will stay with you forever.
It’s the time of year that people talk about “beach reading,” and, well, L.R. Welborn has produced a different take on it. It will change the way you think of Carolina Beach and remind you why adventure is what makes life worth living, whether you are 11 or 55.