Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock
Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock is a contemporary novel written by Mississippi native and former Arkansas resident Jack Butler. First published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1993, the novel is set in Little Rock (Pulaski County) of the early 1980s. Loosely based on the Mary Lee Orsini murder cases in central Arkansas in 1981–1983 and written in a conversational style using multiple points of view, the novel depicts local culture and parodies well-known political figures and issues of the era, including the highly publicized legal contest between the teaching of creationism and evolutionary theory which rocked the state in the early 1980s. Within this context, the author creates a psychological saga of wealth, aspirations to power, and disabling mental illness. The plot is lengthy, the characters many, and the narrational structure unconventional, with a disembodied spirit named Holy Ghost as an omniscient narrator interjecting observation, commentary, and philosophical reflection in a stylized southern dialect as the story unfolds.
The action takes place primarily in the opulent, inherited Morrison mansion in the exclusive residential neighborhood of Edgehill, a secluded enclave in the Heights area of Little Rock long associated with established tradition and old money. The secondary setting is the prestigious law offices of the main character, together with related environs in downtown Little Rock. A number of actual Little Rock locations of the late 1980s appear in the novel, including Browning’s Mexican Restaurant in the Heights, Peck’s bar and restaurant once located on Markham, Jacques and Suzanne European cuisine in the downtown area, the Arkansas Arts Center, Doctors’ Hospital, and the Heights Theatre on Kavanaugh Boulevard. Public figures from the period appear in the novel as well, including civic leaders Bill and Kathy Worthen and politicians Frank White and Ray Thornton. Brief episodes portray camping excursions to rural areas of Arkansas in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains.
The complex plot centers on ambition in conflict with personal needs for romance and sensuality. In the summer of 1981, two men harbor conflicting political aspirations. One hopes to influence Arkansas culture in an understated way, while the other aspires to high-profile elected office, perhaps even to the governorship. The first is the protagonist, the sophisticated and highly educated millionaire attorney Charles Morrison, in his early forties and now married for fifteen years to former beauty queen and television personality Lianne Weatherall Morrison, the “Miss Little Rock” of the title. The other is Sonny Raymond, a classic antagonist, the blustering, profanity-spitting, head-knocking county sheriff. Morrison and Raymond hold vastly dissimilar views on politics, religion, and culture, with Morrison a self-proclaimed liberal, atheist, and advocate of gun control, and the sheriff an advocate of fundamentalist Christianity and gun ownership. Both are married, Morrison more happily than the sheriff, though Morrison struggles continually with the capricious behavior of the vivacious yet inscrutable Lianne, whom he worships all the same.
The ham-handed sheriff contrives to trap Charles Morrison in compromising circumstances, the better to destroy political opposition. Meanwhile, Morrison’s normally sedate law firm is invaded by Tina Talliaferro, a dangerously attractive addition to the attorney pool at the law practice painstakingly built by Morrison’s late adoptive father. The new attorney proceeds to cleverly seduce every available man in the practice, strewing cocaine as she goes, until she reaches Charles, who firmly resists her overtures. Later, in a moment of vulnerability after a lengthy period of misunderstanding and apparent rejection from Lianne, Charles meets with Tina and other attorneys at a bar he has recently purchased. In the subdued lighting of the bar, Tina slips her hands under the clothing of her boss, sending Charles into wild flights of sexual fantasy.
Charles struggles within himself, not wanting to cheat on his wife, but his libido gets the better of him. In fact, the conflicted sexual life of Charles forms a significant portion of the novel. With his sexual desires inconsistently met by Lianne, Charles is thus driven to uncontrollable imaginings featuring Tina. At one point, he contemplates simplifying his life by getting rid of the inconstant Lianne for the promising Tina, horrifying himself. Meanwhile, Tina continues her conquests, extending her grip on men right up to Sheriff Raymond, a lusty man who relishes her offerings, no matter his marital state. But Tina has not forgotten Charles, whom she desires for his money and prestige.
A hidden actor arranges a paid hit job to assassinate Lianne Morrison. The plot tracks the criminals hired to do the job as they stalk Lianne and plan her demise. At length, the hit men succeed, murdering Lianne with a car bomb. Charles is catapulted into paroxysms of guilt, remorse, loss, and grief. He recalls his fleeting wish Lianne were dead. His mind rockets to extremes, self-castigation alternating with raging paranoid terror as everyone in his world seems to turn against him. With the help of a peculiarly gifted detective, however, Charles discovers through records kept at the office of a local psychiatrist that Lianne was far more deeply troubled than he had ever comprehended. Still, he knows no reason why anyone would kill her.
With Lianne’s death, the sheriff sees his opportunity. Framing Charles Morrison as the killer of Lianne Morrison looks like an easy job. Instead, it proves impossible as the now wiser attorneys at Morrison’s law firm deduce that the guilty party is none other than Tina Talliaferro. Charles Morrison is spared from prosecution. The novel concludes with an extended flashback revealing the roots of Lianne Morrison’s troubled psychology in a string of parental abuses committed by her mother. At the same time, the disembodied narrational voice comments on a range of issues, including the relativity of truth, the fragility of sanity, the foibles of the human mind, and the joy of language, sometimes speaking in the style of a southern preacher, other times as a backwoods yokel, just as often as a speaker of African American Vernacular English, and occasionally as a New Age metaphysical orientalist philosopher.
The critical reception for Butler’s Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock has been mixed. The novel was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1993. According to Publishers Weekly, “Butler masterfully evokes Arkansas and the times, explicating the subtleties of his characters’ relationships with stunning authenticity.” Similarly, Library Journal called Butler “a very talented Southern author.” The Southern Quarterly rhapsodized that the novel “often touches on perfection and will be an enduring literary work of the twentieth century.”
Even so, the complex narrational style and frequent use of authorial asides and interjections have invited criticism. In particular, Kirkus Reviews took issue with Butler’s stylistic flourishes, writing, “Bat your way through all the froth and you get an interesting-enough portrait of the recent New South—but know that it’s a major undertaking for only a moderate reward.” Similarly, Library Journal wrote, “With multiple viewpoints, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and more than one demented character, this is not an easy read.”
Butler’s novel remains popular, however, and praised for its irreverent and innovative style. Readers are particularly enamored with Butler’s playful insertion of himself as a character in a lengthy interaction with main character Charles Morrison, as the two play pool while discussing the fine points of wine and discover a shared passion for science fiction.
For additional information:
Johnson, Larry. Review of Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock by Jack Butler. Southern Quarterly (Spring 1993): 126–128.
Kempf, Andrea Caron. Review of Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock by Jack Butler. Library Journal 116 (April 1, 1993): 129.
Review of Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock. Kirkus Reviews, April 19, 1993. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jack-butler/living-in-little-rock-with-miss-little-rock/ (accessed December 12, 2022).
Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock by Jack Butler. Publishers Weekly (March 15, 1993): 70.
Arkansas State University
Outstanding synopsis of this book, which sounds fascinating. During the early years of my Air Force career, I was stationed at Little Rock AFB (in Jacksonville). The only real-life character I’m surprised is not in the book is then Governor Bill Clinton. Perhaps because he wasn’t governor between 1981 and 1983? (He was elected before and after this period.) Nevertheless, it’s a great read.
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