By Jennifer Myers
LOWELL -- He was known as "The Talker."
An out-of-sorts, lonely and likely mentally handicapped old man, known for his signature orange wool hat and the expectation that he would eventually ask anyone with whom he came in contact for directions to East Chelmsford so he could visit his cousin.
They all winced when they spotted him waddling their way: from the cashiers at the Stadium Plaza DeMoulas, to those at Shop & Save on Drum Hill, to Eddie, the owner/operator of a comic-book store tucked away on Alpine Lane off Chelmsford Street.
"He'd dig into his pockets and hand you a crumpled up wad of ones and fives, quarters and dimes, and before you had a chance to say anything, he'd continue, 'That's the money. That's the money for my order there. Is that enough? Is it enough? I have more if you need it,' he'd say, gesturing toward his socks."
Anyone who has been around Lowell long enough knows someone like The Talker, a colorful character in "Hard to Find," a short story by E. Christopher Clark found in the recently published anthology, River Muse: Tales of Lowell and the Merrimack Valley. The piece, which focuses on Eddie, his store and melancholy personal life, is like High Fidelity meets Clerks.
The 453-page story collection includes the works of 35 varied writers, from some of the most world-famous (Charles Dickens) to those for whom this tome marks their first published work (Mark Burns of Nashua). They all have one thing in common muse for their included writings was born in the Merrimack Valley.
Publisher Lloyd Corricelli of Sons of Liberty Publishing, a 1987 UMass Lowell graduate, had published works of several local authors, including David Daniel of Westford and Stephen O'Connor of Lowell, and began kicking around with Daniel the idea of an anthology.
"The thought was to find some of the best, well-known authors, but also to allow some new writers their chance to get published," Corricelli said. "I knew we had a very colorful area here, with a world-class university and the mills, the river and, of course, the literary history with Jack Kerouac, but when I started digging, I was overwhelmed by the wow factor of having so many talented writers in one area. I'm not sure you could do this anywhere else."
Bricks and books. Those are the two words UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan says, in the book's foreword, best symbolize life in the region.
From the Rev. John Eliot, who co-edited the Bay Psalm Book (the first book published among the British in North America) in 1640, to Lawrence-born poet Robert Frost, Kerouac, who gave Lowell its beat, and Haverhill's Andre Dubus III, the area's literary past is rich and its future just as promising.
"The Merrimack Valley is the scene of a literary renaissance," Meehan writes in the foreword. "The writers in our midst are giving us novels, short stories, plays, poems, and essays, many of which draw on this place and its people. They are creating the narrative of this moment, high and low."
The book is like a Whitman's Sampler -- it has something for everyone, including three previously unpublished pieces by Kerouac, provided by his former brother-in-law and keeper of Kerouac's estate, John Sampas.
"I wanted to include more classic writers in the book, including Kerouac, so Dave Daniel approached John Sampas and was handed a file of 30 to 40 unpublished pieces and told to 'take whatever you want,'" Corricelli said.
As a bonus, he and Daniel also scored two poems by Kerouac's boyhood friend and Sampas' brother, Sebastian Sampas, who was fatally wounded in the battle of Anzio while serving in the Army during World War II.
The chapter from Charles Dickens' American Notes chronicling his 1842 visit to Lowell found its way into the book, as did a poem about drinking ale that Edgar Allan Poe is believed to have written at the Worthern House in 1848, as well as a piece by the most famous of the mill girls, Lucy Larcom.
Moving past the classic literary greats, the book delves into the region's modern era of those celebrated for their way with words, from Haverhill's favorite son, Andre Dubus II and his son, Andre Dubus III, who now teaches at UMass Lowell, to Methuen's Jay Atkinson, as well as O'Connor and Daniel.
There are also several pieces from current and former Sun scribes, including 2006 New England Press Association Journalist of the Year Dave Perry, arts-and-entertainment maven Nancye Tuttle and award-winning sportswriter Chaz Scoggins; and contributions from writers you may see daily out and about in the city, including Henri Marchand, assistant to City Manager Bernie Lynch; Jerry Bisantz, artistic director of the Image Theater; and UMass Lowell's Paul Marion.
A story by Corricelli, featuring fictional Lowell private eye Ronan Marino, is full of fun local flavor and intrigue as Marino tracks down a missing 16-year-old girl who has been abducted as part of a Russian human-trafficking ring and stashed at the under-construction Hamilton Canal District by the son of the construction giant overseeing the project.
"I parked on the opposite side of the site across the canal in a lot used for the National Park Visitor's Center," he writes, as Marino plans to infiltrate the construction site, explaining that "based on their business and other mill conversions, the McCorveys were probably renovating the old mill buildings into high-end apartments for young business types who thought it was cool to live in an old drafty mill."
A book-release party will be held Friday, from 7 to 10 p.m., at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. Authors will be on hand to read excerpts. The book costs $20, with all proceeds benefiting veterans' charities.
"We have created this community of authors here, and I am hoping that if the book sells well, we can do a second volume at some point," Corricelli said.