I was a student enrolled in Carlow University’s Low Residency M.F.A. program the day I met Lewis “Buddy” Nordan. He was scheduled to read at one of our events in Pittsburgh. Many of the other students had been excited about the event most of the day. Past students had come to town for the occasion. Nordan was a legend in the Pittsburgh area. He’d taught in Pitt’s creative writing program for more than 20 years. By the time I met him it was 2006. He was already thin, frail, the effects of his neuropathy had taken hold of his body.
Nordan rose to read and his hands shook. His legs, too skinny, shook as well. He walked with a cane. A slight smile showed itself through his gray beard. He squinted, moving the pages closer to his eyes. Then he spoke, his voice melodic, inflected with that patient, southern drawl that he made all his own. It was a voice smooth and steady and as large as Buddy’s heart. In the end we all rose to applaud him, tears in our eyes from the laughter.
A year later, he joined the fiction staff of the program and I enrolled in his workshop. I prepared, as best I could, for the six-month mentorship with the legendary Buddy Nordan. The Buddy in the workshop was different than the man I’d seen read a year earlier. His authority, his recognition loomed over our little group of aspiring writers. He was an amazing teacher. His critiques of our stories were sharp, witty, and when warranted, supportive. We shared many great stories, and many laughs in that room. I was in my last semester. Afterwards I asked Nordan to be my manuscript advisor. He was familiar with my work, and our relationship had grown immensely during our time.
Buddy was quick to offer support and praise when he felt I deserved it, but he was just as quick to pop me on the side of the head when he thought I was veering off track. At times it felt like training with a hardened ringside manager. He popped me a few times. I can still see the thick, shaky pencil marks on a manuscript he’d returned to me. “Vito, I don’t know what the hell you were doing here?” And I laughed out loud, as if he were sitting beside me. We were already so many miles apart.
Losing Buddy feels like losing a ringside manager.
He guided me through the writing of a novel manuscript required for the completion of the M.F.A. And after many revisions, phone calls, comforting words, and sharp critique, he signed off on the project. “It’s ready,” he said. “Maybe not ready for publication, but enough so you can stop paying these people.” We’d spent hours on the phone, usually ending with my whining and his words of encouragement. “It’s really fucking good,” he said to me one day. I had been ready to throw the thing in the fire. Buddy methodically pointed out all the areas he really liked on the spot. Small gestures, images that to me seemed so trivial, dialogue he could see. For him it was the tiny details, the small inflections of voice that told a story. If you’ve read his work, you know what I mean here. I thanked him for his support and told him I looked forward to seeing him at my defense.
Although I couldn’t have known by talking to him over the phone, Buddy’s health was digressing. The illness had already taken over most of his body. He was working on his own book, typing each draft letter by letter, using just one finger. His body was shutting down, but he carried on. I was later informed by people close to Buddy that things were getting pretty bad. He and his wife, Alicia, were moving to Ohio from Sewickley, to a retirement home that could provide him with the assistance he needed. Somehow my looming manuscript defense felt silly, trivial. I considered the trouble he would have to go through to come. But he assured me by phone. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Buddy arrived 30 minutes late to my manuscript defense. I had been forced to start without him–something I quietly objected to. I had planned remarks and in some ways, my defense felt as much about my relationship with Buddy as it did the manuscript (probably more). He arrived in a wheelchair, accompanied by his wife and a man he introduced as his driver, that comforting voice and the slight smirk on his face. I was seated at the head of a conference table in the same room we had held our workshop more than a year earlier. Buddy, from the far end, apologized profusely. “I’m just really happy you’re here, Buddy,” I said.
The defense carried on. Things grew tense when discussion turned to the manuscript itself. Some of the members of the panel found serious issues with parts of the book. Questions of motivation. Buddy shifted in his seat. He spoke out more than once, in my defense. The general consensus, though, was that everyone liked the book, but shared differences of opinion on many details. Buddy deflected most of those differences. His anger rose. He told the panel they were overlooking what was important. One member mentioned the title, a title that I can admit now, may not have been great. Buddy slammed his hands on the table. “The title? Who gives a shit about the goddamn title,” he shouted. Then he turned to me. “Vito,” he said, “I think you’ve written a beautiful book. It’s needs revision, but it’s beautiful and I’m not sure why these people don’t get it.” I wanted to laugh while tears welled up in my eyes. The situation was strange–strange much like one of Buddy’s stories. There are moments of complete awkwardness, discomfort, yet somehow there is always a hint of humor that tells you life really is a complex, strange beast. Really, their criticisms of the book were not that bad. They were fairly minor. But Buddy, there he was, in my corner.
The effort, the struggle he had made to come to the event.
Even as his body continued to crumble, his mind stayed sharp. I thanked him. He apologized he would not be able to make it to a public reading of my manuscript later that day. “It’s fine Buddy, thank you for coming to this,” I said. We left one another with a handshake, it was an emotional day for me for many reasons, but the deepest pain was knowing that I would most likely never see Buddy again. We spoke one or two times after that by phone. He had given me some information about publishing. His agent was no longer taking new writers. The publisher wasn’t really interested. We talked about writers, writing, his stories. During that time, Buddy had been writing new stories, work that many of us in the program had the pleasure of hearing, in part, at readings. But most of that work, much of the world will regrettably never get to see.
Working with buddy was life changing. He was a strong voice. He saw something in my writing that I failed to see on my own. This was important, as I had looked to Nordan’s writing for inspiration. His fiction has the ability to create real sentiment for characters who often say and do vile things. It’s a direct relation to the complexity of people, even the most vile at times make you feel real compassion toward them. Buddy loved his characters, even the ones who are difficult to root for, the racists, the murderers, alcoholics, and the ignorant. He loved the people around him that way too. When emotion was too complex for human comprehension, he broke into elements of magic realism, where time and setting no longer played by the rules of society. His stories were set in gritty, at times near grotesque settings, but it was the fine line he drew between the dirty, real, and the serious, with a slight touch of humor and the absurd that made his style so unique, so heartbreaking and bittersweet, so Buddy.
Rats swimming backstrokes in a flooded basement.
In the end, it was my relationship with Buddy that plays out like a scene in one of his stories. Learning of his passing, the selfish feeling of not wanting to lose such a big-hearted, sharp man, while knowing that he suffered in pain for so long. Life doesn’t make sense sometimes. The minor things feel hyperbolic, truth disguises itself in subtle shifts of perception, a hazy sheen at the edges of our peripheral. Sometimes scenes pan out and the crows on the power lines look down on us and have their say, the dead speak out, lighting strikes a person twice. Sometimes we have to exaggerate, expand things, blur lines, to make sense of what is real and what is not. Buddy left us on Friday the 13th, and somehow that seems like the most appropriate way for him to go.
Buddy, thanks for the laughs, the tears, and the unwavering support you had for me and my writing. I will never be able to live up to it. Know that each word I type is in some way influenced by your outlook on this gritty, complex, and so often, darkly humorous world. We are all, in many ways, Sugar among the freaks, and we’ll be biding our time in the swamp until we can sing with you again.
For a beautifully written obituary, read this.