Zack Beauchamp said everything I wanted to say about what a let-down the ending of ‘True Detective’ was, I thought I’d spend some time talking about a work I read that really nailed the ending: Corey Mesler’s Diddy Wah Diddy: A Beale Street Suite.
Diddy Wah Diddy, named after the famous blues song by the same title, isn’t the kind of book that can be spoiled. It doesn’t really have an overarching plot. It’s a mythology of Memphis’s storied Beale Street and, frankly, when you get to page 210 of the 215 page book and you’re talking about Memphis and music, if you haven’t talked about him yet, it’s pretty obvious who’s going to come up in the last five pages. (No, not Justin Timberlake.) Still, obviously, if you want to be surprised, don’t read further.
So, in order to understand Mesler’s successful dismount, let me tell you a little bit about what he gets up to in the book. Like I said, it’s a mythology of Beale Street — a collection of interrelated stories that build off of each other. The woman cursed to age before her time in one story turns up as a strange old lady in another. In one story a werewolf is shrunken and left in a jar. That jar eventually makes it to the last of the old-timey dry goods stores, Schwab’s, in another. In order to make it clear you’re dealing with myths, the drummer for the Bam Bam Five is, at one point, named Styx Quetzalcoatl, but in another story, he becomes Styx Ygg.
Mesler writes in a voice unlike any you’re going to hear if you go to Memphis, but I feel pretty confident this is the language Memphins speak to each other in their dreams:
Tiny Red was from Arkansaw by way of New Orleans by way of the Orient, which is to say Tiny was a grabbag of musical inventiveness. You know him best for “Silver Dollar Pantleg Blues” and “A Frothing of Delight” and for inventing the phrase “Your world.” But, in his day, Tiny was as hot as they come, as big as Big Bill. In his tiny way, of course.
It’s both beautiful on its own and a loving send-up of the way music writers write about Memphis, as if everyone knows every obscure song by every obscure artist and someone you’ve never heard of — say, Tiny Red — is as important, in his own way, as Big Bill Broonzy. But, if you’ve ever been involved in a really vibrant music scene, you know there’s some truth to that idea. Obscure folks are important, even if outsiders never hear of them.
So, then, finally at the end, Elvis Presley arrives and he takes the stage:
And we said yes, and suddenly Styx was puling the kid up onto the stage with the band and the kid was looking at his feet and the band was laying down some lowdown bottom and then Elvis he just lets the angels take him and he launched into some gospel phrasings and was singing from some deep place and we all nodded yes and we understood something together, something new.
This isn’t the truth, obviously, but it’s a Truth. This is what happened, in some sense: Elvis came to Memphis, fell in love with what he heard, and did something new with it. He was stealing from these gods, a pop culture Prometheus, and we have been left to reckon with what’s been lost and what’s been gained.
And I think that’s why Mesler’s ending works when others fail. It’s not a happy ending (though it’s not sad), but it rings true. Reading the Epilogue, I felt like I understood something about Beale Street, at least, in a legendary sense, that I hadn’t quite gotten before. He doesn’t neatly wrap things up, but he tells you one last truth.
A writer could do worse.