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Hemphill's return 

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

Paul Hemphill lifts the chewed-up piece of Nicorette gum out of his mouth and sticks it in a paper napkin. This is a man who used to fire up 20 of those mean little nonfiltered Camels a day and now he chews pellets of doped-up gum. It is an indignity.

click to enlarge Paul Hemphill dines with his posse at Manuel's Tavern on government-in-exile night. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • Paul Hemphill dines with his posse at Manuel's Tavern on government-in-exile night.

Hemphill is at Manuel's Tavern on a Tuesday night -- government-in-exile night -- with Democratic politicos, cops and ex-newspapermen. He's at a big round table with his wife, Susan Percy, and a circle of friends. They're passing around an early copy of his new book, Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams. They're all pulling for it to be a hit.

Hemphill is 69, recovering from a stroke, his face pale and gaunt. But you look at the book cover and then at him. You can see a bit of the late Hank Williams in his new biographer. The resemblance is uncanny: Two boys rising up out of blue-collar Alabama, born 13 years apart, both with big ears, both 6-1, 150 pounds, with a tendency to shrink into the 130s when the booze kicked in. And, boy, did the booze kick in.

Both with the same sensitivity deep down.

"We can hurt easily," Hemphill says.

The greatest bond of all may be the way both of them cut right to the bone as artists. Williams did it with "three chords and the truth." Hemphill explores the South and his own moody Celtic soul with stripped-down prose that has the kick of a mule.

"Life, I have determined, is a pisser," he wrote years ago. "'I'll never get out of this world alive' is the way Hank Williams put it."

Curtis McBride brings Hemphill's dinner, a Manuel's Burger. McBride has been serving him burgers and iced tea since the days when Manuel Maloof himself hovered over Hemphill like a nurse, making sure he didn't take that first drink.

Hemphill examines the 6 ounces of meat.

"It looks like a hockey puck," he says. But he doesn't mean it. Hell, he loves the place. He put Manuel's Tavern on the map. He's part of the DNA, like the John F. Kennedy portrait behind the bar.

Hemphill has been walking through the worn wooden doors into Manuel's dark cavern for 40 years, since he was the new kid who took the town by storm, a long-haul truck driver's son from Birmingham who became the star columnist for the Atlanta Journal, the old afternoon paper.

Six days a week, in a column stripped down the left-hand side of page 2, he churned out 1,000 words of human drama. He wrote about the kind of folks a friend once called "those Southern creatures": truck drivers, sheriffs, baseball bums, bootleggers, country singers, evangelists and stock car drivers.

Hemphill was 29 by then -- the same age at which Williams died. He'd already given up his dream of playing professional baseball. That ended after five days with the Class D Graceville, Fla., Oilers, when the manager said, "I gotta let the kid go." It was the first of many turning points in a life that would begin to sound like a Hank Williams song.

Hemphill salvaged his pride by playing semi-pro ball in Kansas. He was a good-fielding second baseman who couldn't hit but still drove in runs.

"I was a buntin' son of a bitch," he says. "With two outs and a man on third and two strikes on me, I'd get the bunt sign. I'd drop it. He would score."

He found his way to Auburn University, where a professor told him he had the makings of a writer. He started writing about sports. But a New York columnist soon caught his eye.

Jimmy Breslin was writing a new kind of column for the New York Herald-Tribune. "In a thousand words or less, Breslin was writing close to literature: sharp vignettes with a beginning and a middle and an end, vivid slices of life from the streets of New York," Hemphill explained in his 1993 memoir, Leaving Birmingham.

It was called "new journalism" and Hemphill wanted in on the action. After newspaper jobs in Birmingham, Augusta and Tampa, he found his way to Atlanta and the news pages. Finally, he was hitting home runs, but with a typewriter instead of a bat. Paul Hemphill soon became known as the Jimmy Breslin of the South.

His stuff resonates today. John Schulian, a newspaper columnist-turned-TV writer, included one of Hemphill's columns in his literary journalism class at the University of Utah last year. The column was "Welcome home, Billy Goad," which Hemphill wrote about an early casualty from the Vietnam War. Before dawn, he went out to the airport to watch Goad's arrival: "You could see the crate in the dim overhead light. It was a rectangular pine box, battleship gray, with one brass handle on each end and two on each side. Stenciled on one end was the name SSGT. GOAD, BILLY E. A white card said 'HEAD -- KEEP THIS END HIGH.'"

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