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Ruffin's 'Pompeii Man' Named 'Outstanding American Novel'

Sam Houston State University English Professor Paul Ruffin's novel "Pompeii Man" has been cited in the "Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook" as an Outstanding American Novel published in 2002.

The DLB records the achievements of the world's most influential literary figures each year. Its yearbook summarizes the immediate past year's achievements in literature and lists the best collections of poetry and short fiction and outstanding novels for the year, all selected by a group of DLB editors.
Paul Ruffin
The editors of the yearbook, in selecting "Pompeii Man" as an outstanding novel, described the book as a "literary thriller set in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Coast." It cited among Ruffin's strengths in the book his "strong, clear story line, a deeply accurate sense of place, characters interesting enough to contain contradictions and offer surprises, and above all a voice, a style that moves easily between the colloquial and the lyrical." They also published an excerpt from the novel.

The yearbook last year listed Ruffin's second book of stories, "Islands, Women, and God," as one of the best 13 collections of fiction published in 2001.

Ruffin said that it is gratifying to have his books recognized in what he regards as a very important reference book.

"I don't know that this recognition does all that much for sales, but it certainly legitimizes the presses that published the books," he said.

"Islands, Women, and God" was published by an independent press, Browder Springs Publishing, and "Pompeii Man" was released by a university press, Louisiana Literature Press, out of Southeastern Louisiana University.

"My agent got close a couple of times to selling 'Pompeii Man' in New York, but not close enough," Ruffin said. "I never did have to fool with going down to the bank with a big advance check. I finally decided that it might be better to go with a university press while I still have enough life left in me to go on the road with it."

He said that Random House still has the manuscript and has had it for over three years. "I keep waiting for them to call and tell me when they are bringing it out. The phone has been awfully quiet."

One of the big problems with the novel as a commercial book, Ruffin admitted, is that it is hard to like the characters.

"You have villains that you can't like: the early Stafford, who is too stupid to like; Susie, his wife, who's too shallow at first to like. The only person readers can really go for is the black detective, Merchant, and the converted Stafford, but both come along too late."

When the Baton Rouge Advocate reviewed the book, they devoted the whole front page of their Sunday supplement book section to it, with a big picture of the front of the book and of Ruffin, but the headline read "No One To Like."

Ruffin said that one reviewer described the book as a "disturbing erotic thriller," and he admitted that it is dark.

"But, hey, it's very, very real," he said. "I wrote the book as a study of a man's plunge into hell as a result of his folly, but my agent talked me into the commercial ending. I wish I had stuck with the original version. If readers are going to dislike the characters anyway, at least it wouldn't matter that none turn into heroes."

He noted that "literary fiction does not require agreeable characters. To be sure, it is hard to find one at all in the work of Flannery O'Connor, perhaps the best fiction writer this country has ever produced."
Ruffin is currently working on two new novels, one called "The Keepers" and one titled "The Gravel Pit War."

"They are roughly two lightyears apart in subject matter and tone," he said. "The Keepers" is a murder mystery focusing on a couple who find themselves back in their hometown caring for aging parents.
"The book is a love story, but they have to go through a whole sea of hell to get to the beach where they can throw down a towel," he said. "It's every bit as dark as 'Pompeii Man.'"

"The Gravel Pit War" is the story of a group of white boys who defend their swimming hole against an "army" of black kids during the 1960s in Mississippi.

The University Press of Mississippi is publishing Ruffin's second novel, "Castle in the Gloom," in 2004. Set in East Texas, it is a psychological thriller in which an estranged couple spend the night as captives in a converted storehouse not far from Lufkin.

"I think it's the best thing I've ever done," Ruffin said, "but that may be mildly subjective."

He is also dealing with the Mississippi press on an advance contract for a memoir titled "Growing Up in Mississippi Poor and White But Not Quite Trash" and finishing a book of Texas pieces called "The Segovia Chronicles."

Copies of Ruffin's books may be bought in Huntsville at Hastings.

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Text submitted by Will Wright
SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Oct. 17, 2003
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