09/05/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
IT IS DUSK ON MOBILE BAY, AND Winston Groom is deep into a good ol' Lower Alabama shrimp boil with his boyhood pals Jimbo Meador and George Radcliff. There's sweet corn on the menu, russet new potatoes, plenty of hot sauce, and the shrimp is fresh from the waters off Meador's dock. As they tuck into the feast, the three friends swap tales and insults. "There's more than just a little of Jimbo and George in Forrest Gump," teases Groom, whose 1986 novel inspired the smash summer hit starring Tom Hanks. "These guys are the two biggest idiots I know."
"He's a lying sombitch," drawls Radcliff.
Well, maybe to his buddies, but to everyone else in Point Clear, Ala. (pop. 2,125), Groom, 51, has become a local hero of sorts, what with his movie tie-in paperback (1.2 million copies in print), an audio version that Groom narrates, and his just published collection of Gumpisms. ("Nobody ever got into trouble by keepin' his mouth shut.")
Such is the backwash from Gump that the author has to leave home to escape all the "out-of-the-woodwork" well-wishers. "It's been chaotic, but it will pass," says Groom. "I had the attention once before with my first book [a much-praised 1978 Vietnam novel, Better Times Than These]. After a few weeks everybody gets bored with you, and they find somebody else to pester."
Had it not been for Hanks's beguiling portrayal of the slow-witted but pure-hearted Gump, who coasts through life on the crest of his own dumb luck, Groom would have been happy enough—though not nearly as rich—with the respectable sales (40,000) and positive reviews of his novel when it was first published eight years ago. "Gump was the book Winston was born to write," says his friend, novelist Willie Morris. "It emanates from his wonderful sense of the absurd."
Groom wrote the book in only six weeks, holed up in what were once slaves' quarters on a friend's property in Point Clear. The idea came from a story his father told him one afternoon about a retarded man he had grown up with who could do but one thing well—play the piano. "Afterward I started making some notes, and by midnight I had the first chapter of Forrest Gump," Groom recalls. "I didn't have a message. I just wanted to show the modern world through the eyes of somebody who's see in' it about 90 degrees off. Other people have used that device, but I don't think any of 'em have quite got Forrest."
The son of a prosperous lawyer, Groom, like Gump, grew up in Mobile, Ala., graduated from the University of Alabama and served in Vietnam. After his tour of duty as an Army captain in 1967, Groom settled in Washington, married Ruth Noble, an importer, and took a reporting job at the now defunct Washington Star. There he struck up a friendship with the Mississippi-born Morris, then a writer-in-residence at the paper, who eventually advised him to quit journalism and write full-time. Separated in 1972, Groom moved five years later to New York City, where Morris and another pal, novelist Irwin Shaw's son Adam, introduced him to the Manhattan-Hamptons literary set. There followed many a late night with the likes of James Jones, George Plimpton and Kurt Vonnegut, scribbling big literary ideas on cocktail napkins. "You'd wake up in the morning with your money wadded up in one pocket and all these notes that turned out to be s—t," says Groom. "I was single, and it was basically one big party. I'd always go somewhere else to write. In Manhattan I wasn't writing anything but checks. Willie once told me that every young man needs to do a stretch of time in New York. I've done mine. Now I'm on parole."
Groom has also been on good behavior since he moved home to Alabama in 1986. The following year he married his second wife, Anne-Clinton Bridges, then a 21-year-old Mississippi-born college student whom he met when she was vacationing in Point Clear. "She's a bit younger than me," says Groom of their 23-year age difference, "but she was the oldest young girl I think I've ever met." The Grooms are now planning to build a new home and start a family. "Point Clear is a wonderful place for kids," says Groom. "Families stay together here. There is very little divorce."
It is also a wonderful place for Groom to write. His new Civil War history, Shrouds of Glory, is due next year. And as soon as the phones and the media quiet down, Groom plans to resurrect Gump in a sequel. Not that he's complaining about all the attention. As Forrest has said, "Remember this: While somebody is down there kissin' your butt, they could just as easily be bit in' it too."
CINDY DAMPIER in Point Clear