APRIL 20, 2021
LIKE MANY MIDDLE-CLASS families living in the South, mine vacationed every summer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was growing up. In all that time, not once did I give a thought to the locals who prepared the fried shrimp platters at Sea Captain’s or flipped the flapjacks at the Pancake House or worked the counter at Jungle Safari miniature golf. But based on the law of averages, I probably encountered members of J. Nicole Jones’s family at some point.
Jones’s new memoir, Low Country, chronicles a capricious childhood surrounded by volatile, often lawless men set against the backdrop of a storied region little known to outsiders — a place where ghost stories and pirate tales are passed down through generations, where epic hurricanes render maps useless once every generation, and where the nation’s slave trade began. Jones’s great-grandparents Harvey and Pearl Jones and their six sons put down roots in Myrtle Beach after World War II and immediately became part of the town’s burgeoning tourism industry. Over the years, the entrepreneurs in the family bought up land and opened budget motels, pancake houses, and seafood buffets that catered to the vacationers who flocked there. And the rest of the family worked for them, including J. Nicole Jones’s parents.
It’s helpful to know upfront that Jones escaped the trappings of her upbringing where “getting high is the fastest and surest way of getting out of town.” Instead of booze and opiates, which decimated the lives of some of her kin, education was Jones’s ticket out, beginning with private school, then college, and an MFA, followed by stints on the editorial staffs at Vice and VanityFair.com. One presumes that only now, with the passage of time and from a safe distance, is she able to cast a clear eye on her past, although it may take her a lifetime to parse it all out.
Jones grew up in a place famous for wide sandy beaches and an aggressive, fun-in-the-sun tourism industry that attracts 14 million visitors a year. But her insular world was located farther inland, closer to the swamplands of Horry County, surrounded by a murky, transitional zone that’s not quite land and not quite water, where cottonmouth snakes, snapping turtles, and alligators thrived. That humid, brackish universe seeps through the pages of Low Country. A storyteller from a long line of Southern storytellers, Jones forgoes tidy narratives and traditional story arcs. Her childhood was way too chaotic for that. There is a swampiness to her telling of stories-within-stories that meander and recoil and circle back on themselves, holding the reader in her thrall through every zig and zag.
Low Country is less about Jones, per se, than it is about her colorful family, made up mostly of men who begat men. Her great-grandfather Harvey got his start transporting moonshine during Prohibition, and his wife, “Ol’ Mama,” ran a backroom casino in a gas station. Near the end of his life, Harvey was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so he packed up his red T-bird and his mistress and took off for Mexico. He stayed gone two years before his mistress delivered him on his deathbed back to Ol’ Mama, who nursed him to his end.
Harvey’s son Ralph, the author’s Granddaddy, struck it rich with a high-rise hotel on the beach, but according to Jones, he was a callous man who hit his wife, disowned his 13-year-old grandson, and openly flaunted his mistress. The author’s uncle Keith was a successful hotelier who “up and disappeared” after he got busted with a car full of marijuana and went on the run “from the government, drug dealers, the mob, or all three.” Then there’s the author’s father, Mark, a fun-loving dad, a charming bartender, and an aspiring country music songwriter who slips off to Nashville every now and then to give showbiz a go. Time after time his dream gets knocked out from under him until the time it doesn’t, and he becomes a middle-aged, Grammy-nominated success.
The person who looms largest in Low Country, though, is Ralph’s put-upon wife, Nana, the author’s beloved grandmother. Except for being a bad cook, she was the quintessential grandma, a sweet-natured woman who spoiled her grandchildren and collected dolls for a hobby. That her demeanor was so gentle made her husband’s brutish behavior that much crueler. A beauty in her youth, “Nana was the life of any party, until Granddaddy would notice and threaten her into unnatural smallness,” observes Jones, who was four or five the first time she witnessed her grandfather strike the elderly woman.
Nana proves to be a cautionary tale, a symbol of how low women ranked in the family hierarchy and in the community at large. “The advantages of femininity are few in Horry County,” the author observes. That knowledge fuels her desire to get out of Myrtle Beach and never look back.
One of the many dichotomies of Jones’s childhood was her impoverished home life compared to the wealth of her relatives. Her parents had “three kids and a mortgage before thirty,” and they paid the bills by working evening shifts slinging drinks and seafood platters on the Grand Strand. They could ill afford her father’s treks to Nashville to try to sell his songs, and things went from bad to worse when he bought a bar and proceeded to drink the profits.
In contrast, Jones was lavished at Christmas by her Granddaddy and Nana with a rabbit fur coat, collectible dolls meant for looking at not playing, and a pink suede cowgirl outfit. Her other grandfather — who lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was a beacon of hope and stability — helped the family in more practical ways with vehicles, emergency housing, and tuition.
Woven throughout Low Country are ghost stories — about the Gray Man, who portends hurricanes, and Alice Flagg, forever searching for her true love’s lost ring — along with folk tales about Blackbeard’s buried treasure and hidden histories of enslaved people forced to grow rice and indigo to make their owners rich. And every once in a while, a monster hurricane blows through: Hazel, Hugo, Bertha.
Daily life was hard enough for the author’s family, but then fate had to go and deal it a couple of blows: a car wreck, a premature birth, exorbitant medical bills. It comes as no shock that her parents “separated and reconciled at least a dozen times.” About that, Jones writes:
In a battle off Ocracoke Island, Blackbeard was captured and killed, his head displayed from the mast of Maynard’s ship and his body thrown overboard. The legends say that it swam headless in laps around the ship before sinking to the bottom of the ocean. My brothers and I roamed the neighborhood and the banks of the water with sticks and Super Soaker water guns, pretending to be pirates ourselves. We had been waiting and watching our parents take out their unhappiness on each other, and we wondered what was going to happen in the safety of the sappy pine lots, tracking the course of their love like we tracked the hurricanes swooshing across the Atlantic during the fall.
With childlike wonder, Jones pulls back the Spanish moss to reveal the swampy muck of her youth and blends it with tall tales, weather reports, history lessons, and family lore in captivating, lyrical prose that carries the reader along like a slow river water park ride on a lazy, sunny day.