Oxford, Miss. Famous: Elvis, Kimonos, Castor Beans and a Grinder

In the Ireland of America, locals pay little mind as mad Elvis-impersonating martial artists plotters come and go. Sixth-generation Mississippian Stuart Stevens is on the scene.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Yes, Elvis actually was in the building.

There was a swarming media scrum in front of the federal courthouse in Oxford, Mississippi, last week to cover a man accused of one the most serious crimes imaginable: the attempted assassination of the president of the United States, a U.S. senator, and a local judge. It had all the makings of high drama, but few of the locals paid it much notice.

I heard more talk of the local political races, where one cheerfully committed crank candidate is running for Oxford alderman on the slogan “Throw the rascal in” with the expressed hope, if elected, of spending less time with his family. It’s a sign of how literary Oxford has become that the line is an acknowledged lift of one Norman Mailer used in his 1969 run for mayor of New York (his other slogan was “No more bullshit”).

If the way to defeat terrorism is to ignore the threat and continue with normal life, Oxford and all of North Mississippi are leading the way. Of course, there’s some question just how seriously anyone should have taken an alleged terrorist who signs death threats with his own initials and laces a letter with phrases lifted from his Facebook page. Not to mention his profession, though as one Oxford friend pointed out, “Curtis isn’t just an Elvis impersonator. He also does a great Neil Diamond.” Fair enough.

I was visiting an old friend who worked at the courthouse and even before the feds released Kevin Curtis, the buzz was that K.C., as he was called, might just be making sense with his claims of being framed. The terrorist dumb enough to initial his missives is probably not clever enough to declare innocence with one of the all-time great expressions of outraged innocence:

“Ricin? I don’t even eat rice.”

But throw in a rival martial-arts instructor and a murky feud and it was not very difficult to imagine a late-night plot spun out of control involving castor beans, a grinder, Facebook, and the president of the United States. Now this was just crazy enough to make sense.

Oxford’s most famous writer, of course, is William Faulkner, and there is a certain Snopes-like feel to this petty dispute of conflicting origin ending in a grand and utterly futile gesture. Faulkner also worked in the Oxford post office, which lends a nice symmetry to the moment. But the Oxford writer who best captures this comic opera is its longtime writer in residence, the sadly now-deceased Barry Hannah.

One of Hannah’s classic short stories, titled “It’s Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet,” is about a couple of Mississippians caught in the Vietnam War both dreaming of fame, one as a golf pro, the other a photographer. Hannah understood those small-town lives caught in cul de sacs of routine and failure while yearning for a bigger stage on which to play out life’s dramas. That’s the sort of gut feeling that drives a man to don an Elvis costume and live, if only for a few stolen moments, like the King. Or to don a white kimono and play out Bruce Lee fantasies like alleged Curtis-framer and ricin-letter mastermind J. Everett Dutschke in his martial arts studio.

“Do you really think we’ll be famous?” asks the photographer of his aspiring golf-pro pal, both lying back and looking at the night sky over Vietnam.

“Sure. Fame. Both of us,” responds his friend. “It’ll change your whole life.”

The next day the photographer is shot and killed and the aspiring golf pro accidentally blows up the captured Viet Cong general who was sure to deliver an intelligence trove.

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Jimmy Buffett visited Hannah in Oxford, paid him $7,500 for the story’s title, and wrote an entirely unrelated song using it. Make of that what you will.

As a sixth-generation Mississippian, I’ve come to understand that in many ways Mississippi is the Ireland of America. It’s a green place where literature and music are valued more than acquiring wealth (perhaps because we’ve always been better at the former than the latter). Drinking and fighting are accepted and often respected social endeavors, and defending one’s honor is still considered worthy if not mandatory.

Kevin Curtis and J. Everett Dutschke had a falling-out. It happens. Usually these things spill out of a bar into a parking lot but this one seems to have spilled out of a kitchen and on to the front pages. It captured a bit of the world’s attention, and one has to wonder if these two good old boys were asking: “Do you really think we’ll be famous?”