Southern Scribe Review of The Big Bust at Tyrone's Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta, by Joyce Dixon

Downtown Atlanta has gone through several transformations since General Sherman brought his fashion of urban renewal there. James Gallant has captured a modern neighborhood in change as elderly whites live next to crack dealers, prostitutes, gays, and middle-class families restoring these classic homes.

The Big Bust at Tyrone's Rooming House is a collection of character sketches that fit together as a novel of the Grant Park neighborhood of Atlanta. The narrator of the novel is a young, white writer who is restoring the house as his wife teaches at Georgia State University. He is actively involved in the community as he writes his observations of their life. The telling blends humor and social awareness with a sweet sadness of their circumstances. Even though neighbors are often at odds, they still join together to help each other. 

Gallant captures the language, temperament and physical decayof inner cities. Through the compassionate eyes of his narrator, he shows a community of mix class and race that work

Article on The Big Bust at Tyrone's Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta in Story, by Camille Goswick

Funny isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking about a carjacking.

    But in writer James Gallant’s Grant Park, that’s just what it is.

     Gallant’s story of being carjacked near the state Capitol, only to wind up on a first-name basis with a carjacker who sees Gallant’s money as a favor between friends, opens his book The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House and sets the tone for a novel that the author says strives to find the comedy is potentially tragic situations.

     Gallant’s book set in his neighborhood of Grant Park is basically a series of short tales about the characters he’s encountered over his 20 years of living there. And through the comedic tales of drug dealers, prostitutes and con artists, he also broaches the sensitive subject of gentrification—a process he says has left Grant Park with a new kind of “pusher,” the mom jogging down the sidewalk behind a stroller.

     Gallant said this week that when he and his wife moved to Atlanta from Richmond, Va., 20 years ago, they didn’t pay much mind to the neighborhood they were moving into, except to make sure it wasn’t as “boring” as the suburbia they left behind.

     “We moved without looking too long or paying too much attention,” he said, ‘and we walked right into a neighborhood of drug dealers and prostitutes. It looked okay, nothing out on the street particularly. It was more interesting than the suburb in Richmond, for sure.”

     Sitting on his front porch and talking to those dealers and prostitutes, Gallant said the sketches and vignettes that would become The Big Bust at Tyron’s Rooming House began to form. The opening chapter, which details that carjacking, was published by a New York magazine and inspired an agent’s thought that these stories would make a good novel. And though Gallant’s work before that had always stuck to short story or essay format, he spent the next two years turning his sketches into a cohesive novel.

     Though the novel is a long form, Gallant said it still reads like a series of vignettes, “piecey” writing that adds up to something larger.

     Gallant said he wasn’t sure at first how his neighbors would react to the novel. After all, some of it doesn’t put Grant Park in the best of lights. But Gallant said his neighbors love it, even the ones who inspired the book’s shadier characters.

     “I didn’t think my house was going to be burned down,” he said, “but I had my doubts. It is funny, which is what I think rescues me. It’s funny and sad at the same time.”

     And sales have been brisk, especially considering the novel is what the publishing world calls a “small press” book. That means, Gallant explains, he has to work that much harder to make sure the book doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of the thousands of books stores, critics and editors are inundated with every day. To that end, Gallant has partnered with independent Atlanta bookstores like A Cappella in Little Five Points and Eagle Eye Books in Decatur. He’s also sold the book at area gift shops, because of its Atlanta bent.

     “We’ve sold a lot of books,” Gallant said, “more I think than if I had simply dropped it in a Barnes & Noble or Borders and it just sat there on the shelf.”

     And in a world where movies, video games, computers and a myriad other technologies are all vying for attention, Gallant said writing has become what he termed an “old fashioned” vocation, with an audience that is “relatively small.” Fortunately though, he found Grace Paley and Bob Nichols’ Glad Day Books, a small New England press that strives to publish books that “bridge the gap between works of imaginative literature and articles of political theory and criticism.”

     But selling a lot of books isn’t Gallant’s goal as a writer. Like most writers, he said it’s a passion that he simply couldn’t ignore.

     “Writing for me is more of a passion than a business,” he explained. “It has always been. I think for real writers that what it is. They get unhappy if they don’t do it. Not one writer in a thousand or even a hundred thousand makes a living.

     Even if you have one bestseller that wouldn’t be enough to keep you going. Publishing a novel is incredibly difficult anywhere.

Lydia Ship speaks with Gallant about his story “Ferranti and Sivori," a "dark and musical telling," which appeared in the magazine.

LS: What inspired “Ferranti and Sivori”?

JG: When I wrote that story and eight others about guitarists, I had been studying the history of the classical guitar, an instrument I’ve been playing with modest competence for a long time. Ferranti, like music, is an emotional chameleon. Watch videos of Leonard Bernstein conducting. His face registers more shifts of emotion in the course of a symphonic work than some people experience in a lifetime. I found the rough outlines for my story in Simon Wynberg’s biography, Zani de Ferranti. Not a very good book, actually. Ferranti was an interesting guy, but judging from Wynberg’s work, not enough is known about him to enable a fetching biography. My Ferranti is more fiction than fact.

LS: A talented handling of humorous tone carries the pacing throughout. Early in the story, when Ferranti finds himself “as a guitarist to appear in a musical program at Brussels in 1845 with the renowned violinist Camillo Sivori,” the two protagonists are contrasted:

Sivori had studied with Paganini, and his theatricality while performing resembled his master’s. His posture and facial expressions changed dramatically in response to altered moods and tempos of music. His large dark eyes flashed to express terror or closed swooningly. Playing double-fortissimo, he spread his feet and wielded his bow like a sword as he attacked the strings.

When not performing, he was like a collapsed balloon. His large, liquid, dark eyes had a melancholy, yearning cast, and it became noticeable that he was barely five feet tall. For Ferranti, this hermaphroditic midget illustrated what became of a person who’d done nothing in life but master a musical instrument.

As you were drafting, what did you most enjoy creating from historical records and what from the gaps between them, whether in Ferranti’s idea of his own mind or in the comparisons and interactions with historical figures? What is your idea of “a fetching biography” in fictional terms?

JG: I think the whole process was basically more subjective than your question suggests. When I chance on materials I can work with, maybe transform—in life or literature—I feel a kind of tropism-ic attraction to them. That was the case when I read Wynberg’s book on Ferranti. Without that response the “historical records” are dead meat, at least where fictional writing is concerned. A fictional story can be a “fetching biography” of sorts when there’s not really

Interview with James Gallant in the Chattahoochie Review with Lydia Ship