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Hemphill's return 

Atlanta author Paul Hemphill calls on a kindred country spirit in his comeback bid

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At the end of the book, Hemphill shares an exchange of letters between him and David. David told him how much he had needed Hemphill as his father.

Hemphill wrote back: "It's going to take about 120,000 words for me to say it to the world in great flowery gut-wrenching detail ... but I can state it to you in one simple declarative sentence. I love you more than anybody or anything in the world. ... What I feel for you is not 'responsibility.' It's love."

He hoped David would get back on track. But today, at 40, David is serving a term in federal prison in Arkansas. "Guns and drugs," Hemphill laments. He explains that David was arrested in Alabama, under the influence of marijuana and in possession of several guns. He hopes his son will be released next summer.

Hemphill has come to grips with sadness. It is the root of his art.

"[M]ost of my best writing is ultimately sad," he wrote in the foreword to his second collection of columns, Too Old to Cry. "It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing, and general unhappiness: a boy who died in my arms, in a bomb crater, while I wrote in Vietnam; an old lady who simply died of loneliness; a young couple with a child, stranded in a bus station; a pathetic kid from Tennessee who messed up a bank robbery in San Francisco."

His walk on the trail didn't cure his problem with the booze overnight, either. The low point of his drinking, he says, was "7 o'clock in the morning, my vodka and my orange juice before anybody else got up."

Percy agrees.

"There was a point where I could hear the top of a vodka bottle being unscrewed from 50 feet," she says. "I still have a tightening sensation in the back of my neck that I associate with hearing that sound."

She threw Hemphill out of the house on Thanksgiving 1984.

"I didn't like Paul when he drank and I didn't like me when he drank," Percy says.

Hemphill had always been contemptuous of Alcoholics Anonymous, but after a few nights on friends' couches, he decided to try it. He and Percy reconciled. He cobbled together a year of sobriety in AA and, to celebrate, started drinking again.

"Nine o'clock the next morning, I'm waiting for them to open the doors for my favorite liquor store in Little Five Points," he says. "When I got over that one, I said, 'Fuck it, it's my turn. I have to do it myself. I can't lean on them anymore.'"

He quit on his own and hasn't had a drink in 20 years. He credits Percy with saving his life. "She anchors me, you know? She loved me and she hung in there, but I tell you, I pushed her to the limit."

One of Hemphill's biggest mistakes was firing his first literary agent, Sterling Lord, who also represented Jack Kerouac. About 10 years ago, when Lord was in his 70s, Hemphill felt the agent was too old and let him go.

"I found out there be monsters out there," Hemphill says. "Horrible things happened." He found modest success with nonfiction books, but his new agent wasn't able to sell his fourth novel, Nobody's Hero. It was finally published by a small Alabama house. After it sold only 800 copies, Hemphill broke down and wrote to Lord, still active in his 80s, who took him back.

Hemphill mentioned that he'd always been interested in writing a book about Hank Williams. Within weeks, Lord got him a deal with Viking. Hemphill found a trove of information in Nashville. Then he wove his own story around the biography.

The book starts out in 1949, with the 13-year-old Hemphill on the road with his father, roaring through the mountains in the truck, listening to "that Lovesick Boy" on the radio.

"Daddy leaned over to turn up the volume so we could hear the pained yodel and the whining steel guitar that echoed his nasal wail. Hank sang like a hurt animal. They were the loneliest sounds we had ever heard," Hemphill wrote.

Like a soul brother, he examines Williams' alcoholism, which hastened the singer's untimely death.

"An alcoholic, in his determination, is one of the smartest people in the world," Hemphill says. "Nothing is going to stand between him and the next drink of whiskey and I certainly know that feeling, and you know you're screwing up everything and you can't help yourself. You've got to have a drink."

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