The Story Behind Powerballs by Jimmy Clifton

10 Aug 2021

Written by Michael Hayes, the caretaker of Clifton’s intriguing manuscript.

What’s the story behind the story?

I was as surprised as anyone when the Clifton manuscripts showed up on my doorstep. I hadn’t heard from him in years; hadn’t seen him since he’d gotten into a brawl with the groom at my sister Julia’s wedding a decade ago. ‘Defending the family’s honor!’ I remember him yelling. It had taken all six groomsmen to drag him outside.

True, we’d been very close growing up, which is so often the case with young cousins of similar age. Some of my fondest memories are the summers I spent at the Clifton’s Lake Forest estate, along Lake Michigan. You could say that Jimmy grew up with a silver spoon is his mouth, but he always treated me as an equal, even after our side of the family had fallen on hard times. We ranged far and wide over a habitat of deep ravines and vast private lawns with stone walls or, if the weather was right, struck out for parts unknown, as he liked to say, on his little daysailer The Willing Lass.

Time and circumstance conspired to separate our two sides of the family, but Jimmy and I stayed in touch. After college, I nestled into the relative safety of family and a 9 to 5. Jimmy, who’s ticket had been punched at birth, set out instead on the road less traveled and under the heady influence of his heroes Conrad, Hemingway and Harrison. Roadie for a globe-trotting rock and roll band. Riding from Cairo to Cape on a decrepit Ural motorcycle. Crewing on sailing yachts. I lived for the occasional letters and postcards and Jimmy’s bold, often hilarious missives that looked like they’d been dashed off in a hurry. Here’s one from outside Nairobi, dated October 12, 1997, when he’d looked up another of his heroes, the photographer Peter Beard:

…Hayes, if there’s anything left of your manhood – and how could there be? – you’ll come to Africa. Today. Donna and the kids will understand. Just tell them it’s work related. Big tradeshow perhaps? Then pack light. Beard wears a sarong, or nothing at all. Same for his guests. Tomorrow we visit the Maasai. There’s been a lion about and Beard says nothing riles up the Maasai like lion. Hope you’ve lost some weight since last time I saw you. Lion covers 100 yards in four seconds.

That sort of thing…

Yes, there were rumors of more nefarious activities, and Jimmy never seemed short on money even after the family had cut him off. He couldn’t have made much from the occasional article or short story that made it to print. But that just added to the intrigue.

Then one day, after years of silence, Jimmy’s manuscripts arrived with a note from John Henry Thibodeau, captain of the Miss Rosie Mae. While it seems unlikely that even Jimmy, who I knew to be a very strong swimmer, could have survived, it can’t be ruled out. I like to imagine getting a postcard from Jimmy, with his distinctive handwriting, postmarked from somewhere in the islands. It would be short and to the point, in classic Jimmy fashion:

Hayes, have you no shame? Leave it to you to try and cash in on my life’s work. (After you’ve pissed away most of the royalties on college loans and a new SUV that’s the envy of your neighbors, mail a check to the Eden Roc, St. Barths, c/o Carter Banks, guest. What are you waiting for, man, get that next Jimmy Clifton published!)

If you woke up in the world of Powerballs, what is the first thing you would do?

As Powerballs’ protagonist Rose Ball says when she dreams of winning a record Powerball lottery: “Buy a lakefront mansion in Lake Forest, a little pied-a-terre on the left bank in Paris, someplace south on the ocean for the winters. A
private jet…and, most importantly, romance!”

Of course, my needs are much simpler and, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for…with a record Powerball win under my belt, I’d splurge on Cubs season tickets and a trip to Paris (I’m happily married so romance is a given!)  

If you had to write a blurb for the last book you read, what would it say?

“Men and women of privilege, with too much time and money at their disposal, tend to behave badly. Never was this more true than in British East Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, as described in White Mischief, James Fox’s fascinating story of desperadoes, drunks, and dastardly deeds — and the decline of the empire. A cautionary tale that resonates now more than ever.” (An odd choice for my book blurb, but just got done re-reading it and found it still holds up…)

Where did Jimmy write Powerballs?

I imagine Jimmy Clifton wrote Powerballs in far-flung, out-of-the-way places: mid-Atlantic on a midnight watch while crewing a sailboat; huddled next to a small fire on his Cape to Cairo motorcycle trip; even on the back of napkins in the hole-in-the-wall beach-side bars that he frequented. All evidently provided inspiration for the exotic settings and outlandish characters that help make Powerballs so intriguing.

Pretend Jimmy qualified for the Olympics this year. What sport would he compete in?

Jimmy was a prodigious athlete, powerful swimmer, and sailor and, in his youth, could have competed in several events. He complained mightily, however, when the Olympics shifted from amateur to professional.  

Jimmy Clifton is the author of the book Powerballs

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rebecca