How many times have you heard the lament, “They don’t write southern novels the way they used to”? This statement is usually followed by a catalog of classics like To Kill a Mockingbird along with a few reverent references to Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather and Flannery O’Conner. “No one writes like that anymore,” they say.
Yes, they do. Kind hearts, let me say (if you don’t already know) that something splendid has returned to southern literature. Before you are 20 pages into Tom Franklin’s new novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, you will find yourself smiling, perhaps, saying “Yes, yes. That is it! Here are the smells and sounds of a southern morning, bird songs, dusty roads, and the splender of a midnight sky untainted by the glare of a city.”
Chabot is one of those small southern towns that has been bypassed by the interstate. Most of the stores are closed and the only business that passes for a nightspot is the Chabot Bus - literally, a former bus that is now a tavern. Then there is the Hub Cafe, noted for its unaltered menu of cheeseburgers and oyster po’boys. The last 30 years have brought changes: there are a goodly number of Mexican residents now and both Voncille, the town dispatcher, and Sheriff French’s deputy, Silas Jones, are black. The mayor, affectionately called “Mayor Mo,” is part-time real estate agent and spends most of his time “out of the office.”
If Chabot sounds like a variation of Sheriff Andy’s Mayberry, be assured that the similarity is deceptive. Over 20 years ago, a young girl named Cindy Walker disappeared and now another girl has gone missing, and M&M, a local pot dealer, has been burned to death in his car. However, everyone — including Sheriff French — is confident that they know the killer’s identity. It has got to be “Crazy Larry” Ott, the 42-year-old weirdo who lives in his parent’s old home near Chabot and operates his father’s old garage.
Everyone in town has a “Crazy Larry story.” On the night that Cindy Walker disappeared, she had a date with Larry Ott. In high school, Larry was an outcast, treated with contempt by his classmates. There was the Halloween party where Larry wore a zombie mask. And then there was his obsession with Stephen King books and magazines like “Creepy” and “Eerie.” It was also well known that Larry’s father was bitterly ashamed of his inept son (“No mechanical aptitude at all”). The community leaders were confident that eventually, the truth would surface and Larry would get his just deserts.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter chronicles Larry Ott’s story, gradually revealing the painful details of his childhood and his desperate yearning for his father’s approval. Shunned by his playmates, Ott is a solitary figure who prowls the woods near his home creating fantasy adventures until he meets Silas Jones. Although their friendship is brief and awkward, Larry never forgets it. When Silas leaves Chabot and becomes a successful ballplayer, Larry follows his career. When “32 Jones” returns (32 was the number on his baseball shirt), Ott attempts unsuccessfully to renew their friendship.
Larry Ott’s lonely life appears to be a pertinence that he pays for crimes that he never committed. Eventually, he accepts the town’s rejection, although he sometimes utters a prayer: that God will someday send him “a friend.” In the meantime, he putters with his chickens which he has named after “First Ladies,” and when he visits his mother in the nursing home he tells her that Barbara Bush is “a good layer,” but Rosalynn Carter hasn’t laid in two weeks. Then, suddenly, the miraculous happens — the long-awaited friend appears. His name is Wallace Stringfellow, and the reader is not likely to forget him.
There is a pronounced “literary echo” in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Larry Ott, ostracized and condemned by the community, bears a definite resemblance to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there is a significant difference. Whereas Boo hides from his tormentors, Larry Ott stands in the doorway of his garage each day, staring hopefully at the passing traffic. Perhaps today he will find a customer and a friend.
This modest synopsis of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter stops short of revealing a great deal. Suffice it to say that there are layers of skillfully designed details that have not been explored. Eventually, the reader will learn what happened on that fateful night that Larry Ott had his first (and only) date. There are also revelations about Silas Jones and the reasons for his rejection of Larry’s timid offers of friendship. Finally, there is Wallace Stringfellow, a character who resembles one of William Gay’s “perverse demons.” All of these revelations deserve to be discovered by the reader.
However, the greatest pleasure in reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter resides in savoring the masterful writing. Franklin captures the sights and sounds of the rural South with skill. When Larry Ott sits in the darkness nursing a cup of coffee on his front porch, the air is thick with the smell of goldenrod and honeysuckle. In the heat of the day, Larry smells the cut grass (he has a push mower), watches the dragonfly “snake feeders flit through his garden,” and listens to the raucous cry of blue jays. The writing is filled with images from a vanishing South, Coke machines (like the big red one in Larry’s garage, screen doors, grease pits, chicken tractors and mangled mail boxes (some with a resident rattlesnake).
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter successfully links the old South with the new and perhaps the time has come to move on. Reluctantly, Larry will have to update his garage, stow his wrenches and ratchets, and get some computerized equipment. It is time to dismantle his obsolete TV antenna and get a satellite dish. Hopefully, he may show up at Chabot Bus and someone will finally offer to buy him a beer (Silas?). He may even find another Stephen King fan — someone he can invite home to watch “The Shining” on HBO. It would seem that Chabot owes him that much.
Let me begin this review by confessing that I never heard of E.M.P. (Electromagnetic Pulse), and I was distressed to learn that its destructive potential has been readily acknowledged by both the Pentagon and the White House (Newt Gingrich wrote the forward for this novel). According to the author, the public’s ignorance of the threat posed by this silent enemy is largely due to the fact that the first information about the destructive potential of E.M.P. was released on the same day that the final report on the 9/11 catastrophe appeared in the media. In short, the horrors attending the fall of the Twin Towers so totally dominated the news (as well as the imagination of the American public) that readers paid scant attention to a new “theoretical danger.”
Briefly defined, E.M.P. represents a nuclear weapons strategy which would render an entire country helpless by simply destroying that country’s computer technology. In theory, a nuclear missile designed to detonate some 20 miles above the surface of the designated country (in this fictional enactment, it is over Kansas) would simply “erase” all computer-dependent technology. Within one second of the explosion, a shock wave would short-circuit every electrical device that it touched. In-flight planes would crash, all motorized vehicles would stop, and all communications (TV, radio, telephones) would cease. The country’s inhabitants would be unaware of what had happened until they encountered the consequences (stalled cars, dead phones and the silence attending the loss of mass communications).
In order to graphically demonstrate the devastation of such an attack, author Forstchen has created a novel in which the inhabitants of a small town (Black Mountain, N.C.) fight for survival in the aftermath of an E.M.P. attack. The first evidence that something is amiss is the stalled traffic on I-40. As the town ceases to function, the first causalities occur in hospitals where patients are on life support. Early fatalities include individuals with pacemakers and individuals dependent on dialysis. Diabetics and cancer patients are immediately “at risk.” Schools and nursing homes, now without air conditioning, electricity or refrigeration quickly become unsanitary and unsafe.
As concerns about food and drinking water increase, looting and theft become commonplace. Within three days, the local stores have been raided and the desperate civic officials have implemented martial law. Money becomes worthless and Black Mountain gradually reverts to a barter system in which bullets, cigarettes and canned goods become mediums of exchange. (Ten .22 bullets for a rabbit, two bullets for a cigarette, etc.)
John Matherson, the protagonist of One Second After (like author Forstchen), has military experience and teaches at Montreat-Anderson College. Matherson had given up a promising military career when he decided to bring his ailing wife home to Black Mountain. Following the death of his wife, this history instructor and veteran of Desert Storm had become one of the most popular citizens of the small town. When disaster strikes the town calls on him to assist in developing a survival strategy. In a matter of days, he and a few civic leaders are rationing food and water, patrolling the Interstate, collecting firearms and mobilizing vehicles that function without computer technology (pre-1970s). One of the town’s most valuable vehicles is a Ford Edsel!
The greatest threat to the town’s inhabitants proves to be the ignorance produced by the information vacuum. Although it is evident that the United States has been attacked, no one knows the identity of the enemy – Iran? North Korea? China? Unanswered questions include: Is the war over? Who won? What is going on in the rest of the world?
In conjunction with the unknown fate of America, Black Mountain and other small towns in the region find themselves coping with great numbers of people arriving from Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Atlanta. Within a matter of weeks, Old Fort, Marion, Morganton and Asheville are reduced to embattled fiefdoms that strive with little success to maintain cooperative relationships with other towns while attempting to deflect migrating hordes and protect their supplies, such as food and water and medication.
A sustained level of tension and suspense in One Second After is produced by Forstchen’s stark portrayal of the town’s speedy descent into brutal savagery. As John Matheson and the civic leaders of Black Mountain struggle to maintain the basic principles that created this country, they are repeatedly forced to acknowledge that civilization’s fragile veneer is being stripped away. Reports begin to arrive concerning murderous armies composed of thousands of armed and desperate individuals that are moving steadily toward Western North Carolina. The largest group, called the Posse, are “practicing cannibals” and have left a terrifying wake of rape, murder and ruin behind them. According to rumor, a similar group (a self-styled cult) is approaching from Tennessee.
Before One Second After has run its course, John Matherson finds all of his most cherished principles challenged. Certainly, he had not foreseen the painful decisions he would face as the town’s military advisor. Not only does he condone the killing of “invaders;” he serves as executioner. In time he even assists in converting his beloved college into a military base where his former students serve as the last barrier between the Posse and his town. He watches loved ones die of starvation and implements policies that result in the willful withholding of food and medication for individuals who are fated to die anyway (triage).
There is a daunting message in this novel. One Second After is a cautionary tale. The worst horrors depicted here (and there are many) are simply projections based on countless studies of what could happen to the United States should it suddenly lose all of its complex technical advances in one blinding flash. We are a pampered country, says William R. Forstchen, coddled by a great web of technical marvels. Take them away and we are heartbreakingly vulnerable — so vulnerable that 80 percent of us would perish before we could adapt to a world without technology.
One Second After by William R. Forstchen. A Tom Doherty Associates Book, 2010. 349 pages
Dear readers, if you decide to purchase this amazing novel, please consider the following advice: forget George Romero and the multitudes of lurching zombies that have become common fare in both films and novels. Purge your mind of ravenous, decaying flesh-eaters who crawl and stagger through cemeteries, suburban housing projects and shopping malls.
John Ajvide Lindqvist has re-invented the concept of the undead (just as he re-invented the traditional image of the vampire in Let the Right One In). His “undead” are more docile, but frightening nevertheless.
Lindqvist’s tale begins with a breakdown in utilities service in Stockholm. During a heat wave, electrical appliances begin to malfunction. Televisions, vacuum cleaners and electric stoves can’t be shut off. In addition, the entire populace seems to be suffering from migraines and tempers are short. Then, the inconceivable happens: all of the dead in the local morgue get up and walk. Those that manage to escape before the police arrive (trailing sheets and revealing their autopsy stitches) begin a slow trek through the city, and many are giving a piteous cry: “Home! Home!”
David Zetterburg, a popular local comedian, finds his life turning into nightmare when his beautiful and gifted wife is killed in an automobile accident. Called to the hospital to identify Eva, he arrives in time to witness his wife’s “reanimation.” Despite extensive, fatal injuries to her face and body, Eva’s corpse stirs, sits up and looks at her husband.
Elvy Lundberg had dutifully tended her husband, Tore, in his final illness. After his death, she tries to put her life together again and find peace with her granddaughter with whom she shares a kind of telepathy and “second sight.” Then, Tore, who has been dead for over a month, comes home.
Then, there is Gustav Mahler (He takes a lot of kidding about that name). He is an overweight journalist with a pacemaker and his life evolves around his new grandson, Elias. When the child is killed (he falls from the window of his parent’s apartment) Mahler is devastated. However, Gustav hears that the dead are awakening all over Stockholm, and he wonders about his grandson’s lonely grave. Although Elias has been buried for two months, Gustav unearths the coffin with his bare hands and brings Elias home ... if, indeed, the creature in the coffin is Elias.
Eventually, Stockholm’s hospital personnel, in conjunction with the police and the military, round up the dead who have now been christened the “reliving.” Totally at a loss as to what to do, the authorities confine the dead in the local hospital. The military dispatches special forces who are instructed to disinter all of the dead who have died recently (those who have died more than four months ago do not “awaken”) and a governmental announcement instructs the public to turn in their deceased relatives who return home.
Handling the Dead is not a horror novel in any traditional sense. Instead, Lindqvist uses the folklore of the undead to develop a disturbing meditation on the nature of death, love and loss. Moving back and forth among his major characters, the author tells a dark, suspenseful story.
David wishes to bring his “reliving” wife home, but her behavior becomes increasingly strange. Elvy sees a vision and is convinced that the world is on the brink of Apocalypse. Eventually, she begins to preach to her neighbors, citing the biblical passage about the dead rising from their graves. Flora, Elvy’s granddaughter takes up residence in a half-completed housing complex called Heath, which is also inhabited by a large group of young dissidents. Gustav flees with his daughter and Elias to a remote cabin where he plans to rehabilitate his grandson.
Study of the newly-awakened dead by medical and psychological specialists reveals bizarre facts. When large groups of living people visit or attempt to converse with the “reliving,” they discover that they (the visitors) can read each other’s minds. The experience proves to be disorienting since they are hearing hundreds of voices and can no longer recognize their own thoughts. In addition, the awakened dead are incapable of individual thought and only mimic the wishes (spoken and unspoken) of those around them. Much of the time they appear docile; however, they become angry or frustrated if these emotions are exhibited by those around them. The only objects that interest are wind-up toys.
Eventually, all of the awakened dead are transported to the Heath, with plans to develop it into a rehabilitation center. This move and the subsequent visits by relatives and the public proves to be disastrous. Belatedly, all of the relatives of the “reliving” realize that the beings that have returned bear no resemblance to their loved ones.
David’s wife, Eva, once a gifted writer of children’s books, does not know her husband or her child. Although she can speak (which is rare among the “reliving”), she merely repeats variations of statements others make to her. When Gustav attempts to rehabilitate his grandson, Elias becomes violent and attacks him — a response that is prompted by the anger and frustration that Gustav is experiencing because his rehabilitative therapy is failing.
As all attempts by the authorities fail, the “reliving” are abandoned. Helpless and without defenses, they are attacked and killed by bands of marauding citizens who find them participating in a solemn dance outside the Heath. When Handling the Dead draws to an end, the fate of the “reliving” is uncertain. Perhaps, lie the disenfranchised aliens in “District 9,” they will end up living on government subsidies. Another possibility is Elvy, who comes to believe that she had misinterpreted her vision. Instead of saving the living, Elvy believes that she was meant to save the awakened dead. Now she wants to help them return home. Apparently, “home” is a second death.
Excluding the violence at the end of this novel (a bonfire of the “reliving” who all die a second time and a “zombie from the sea that acts like the undead in a Romero flick), Handling the Dead has no scenes of mass carnage. Instead, Lindqvist depicts a psychological horror which arises from the realization that nothing is beyond the grave except silence. In essence, that is the message that reawakened dead deliver. Although the novel ends with a reaffirming symbol — a white caterpillar that becomes a butterfly — it does little to erase Lindqyist’s images of what lies beyond the grave: a devastating silence.
Handling the Dead by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Quercus Publishing. 364 pages
To buy affordable holiday gifts for men past the age of 30 can be difficult. When confronted with men who have slogged into their 40s, the task becomes formidable indeed. Givers can always wrap up some gifts that certain men will usefully employ — the Hickory Farms package of mustards and cheese, a bottle of Wild Turkey, the latest bit of techno-bling — but these gifts often generate as much excitement as the proverbial tie that was once the staple present for Father’s Day.
Give a man a book, however, and you offer him not another 4,000 calories to add to his holiday waistline nor some stupefying gizmo with beeps and buzzing. No — give a man a book, and you give him a key to a different world, a ticket to another life however briefly enjoyed, a chance both to escape his own troubles and to find in that escape some possible inspiration to return and confront those troubles.
Robert Girardi’s Gorgeous East (ISBN 978-0-312-56586-2, 2009, $24.99) whisks the reader, along with the novel’s main character, the American John Smith, out of his normal routine straight into the modern-day French Foreign Legion. Down and out in Paris, with scarcely a euro left in his pocket, Smith, an actor and singer of Broadway tunes whose luck has soured and whose girlfriend is murdered by a jealous Turk, a shady businessman who then turns his pistol upon himself, decides on a whim to enlist in the Legion. Here he endures the brutal training all must undergo who hope to join this unique collection of hardened men, professional soldiers, and drifters (all nationalities are welcome in the Legion except for the French themselves; they may only serve as officers or under an assumed nationality).
On completing his training, Smith falls under the tutelage of Colonel Philip de Noyer, a French aristocrat who is slowly being consumed by a hereditary madness. De Noyer loves his young wife, the beautiful Louise Vilhardouin whom he once rescued from suicide, but he also reveres the Legion. The honor of both men, and that of the Canadian Evariste Pinard, is tested to the limits by the tension created by their loyalty to their comrades and their desire for Louise.
If you know a man who gets a come-hither look in his eye at the mention of adventure and faraway places, who needs some plastique to blow him out of this life and into some wild encounters with terrorists, madmen, and passionate women, then look no farther than this grand tale of La Legion Etrangere.
For those seeking a tale of mystery and intrigue along the lines of The DaVinci Code, Jerome R. Corsi has written The Shroud Codex (ISBN 978-1-4391-9041-8, 2010, $26), a novel which explores the riddle of the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth wrapped around Christ as he lay in the tomb after his crucifixion. Here a priest, Father Paul Bartholomew, has begun to take on the wounds and appearance of the image left on the shroud. Dr. Stephen Castle, an atheist, takes Father Bartholomew as his patient and as a result finds himself in the middle of a war between believers like Father Bartholomew’s parishioners and skeptics like Professor Gabrielli, who contends that the shroud is a medieval forgery. The subjects that rise up from this conflict range from ancient pigments and dyes to speculations by physicists about the nature of reality and time, and should satisfy all those readers who love to examine the conundrums left us by the past.
The old adage that big gifts come in little packages holds true for Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life (ISBN 978-0-385-53357-7, 2010, $25). Author of such novels as The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and Beach Music, Conroy gives us in this small, plump volume an account of his life as a reader and his love for books. Among many other topics, My Reading Life includes an account of Conroy’s beloved high school teacher, Mr. Gene Norris, whom Conroy credits with his own success as a writer; his defense of Gone With The Wind as a great novel; a hilarious put-down of Alice Walker; his love affair with the poetry of James Dickey; and his sojourn in Paris. These tales all bear the inimitable Conroy marks: sprawling, funny, touching, warmly personal.
Those of us in Western North Carolina who still hold Thomas Wolfe in high esteem and who are proud to honor his name will find Pat Conroy’s confession of debt to Wolfe particularly gratifying. Though many authors — Ray Bradbury, James Jones, Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, and Betty Smith come immediately to mind — have praised Thomas Wolfe for the inspiration given them by his writing, Wolfe’s reputation has slipped among academics these last forty years. Pat Conroy makes no bones about his own love for Wolfe’s writing. In the twenty-five page essay on Wolfe published here, “A Love Letter To Thomas Wolfe,” Conroy tells us how Gene Norris introduced him to Look Homeward, Angel and brought him to Asheville as a student to tour Wolfe’s home. He takes to task those critics who attack Wolfe for his lack of verbal restraint and his effusive style (a criticism some make of Conroy himself). At one point in the essay, recollecting how much Wolfe’s writing meant to him as a young man, Conroy writes:
“What the critics loathed most, I loved with all the clumsiness I brought to the task of being a boy. ‘He’s not writing, idiots,’ I wanted to scream at them all. ‘Thomas Wolfe’s not writing. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? He’s praying, you dumb sons of bitches. He’s praying.’”
The Shroud by Jerome R. Corsi. Threshold Editions, 2010. 336 pages.
For over a decade, Dennis Lehane’s name has been synonymous with skillfully crafted crime novels. Both Mystic River and Shutter’s Island were made into blockbuster movies and Coronado contains some of the best short stories in American fiction. However, Lahane’s greatest crowd-pleaser is Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), a tension-soaked thriller that racked up an impressive number of Academy awards (Ben Afleck, Casey Afleck, Amy Ryan). Now comes the sequel, Moonlight Mile.
It is now 12 years later, and the husband and wife team of Patrick McKenzie and Angie Gennaro are married and have a precocious daughter, Gabby. However, the McKenzie’s are having serious doubts about Patrick’s future as a private investigator. In short, the work is hazardous, Boston is a high-risk location and Patrick is physically and mentally weary. In addition, the current state of the economy has both parents investigating alternative vocations. Ah, but then, a midnight phone call conjures up a past that Patrick has tried to forget.
The caller’s name is Beatrice McCready, a woman who had once hired Patrick to recover a kidnapped, 4-year-old girl named Amanda. As things turned out, Amanda had been kidnapped “for her own good” by a relative who hoped to remove her from the negligent care of a mother with a drug addiction and a criminal record. Before the entire chain of events runs its course, Patrick has memorable (and violent) encounters with pedophiles, drug lords, several psychopaths, a host of corrupt policemen and a few jaded social service workers.
In the end, Amanda is found in the home of two loving parents (who go to prison for their part in the kidnapping) and Patrick returned Amanda to the home and care of her drug-addicted mother. Patrick’s decision to do the legally correct thing by returning the child to her natural mother causes Angie to move out (she eventually returns) and leaves Patrick with a growing suspicion that the wrong people have been punished. Now, over a decade later, Amanda is missing again.
After a severe beating and several hair-raising encounters with a Russian drug lord named Yefin Molkevski (a kind of whimsical sadist), Patrick finally tracks Amanda to a small town in upstate New York. It quickly becomes evident that Amanda has not been kidnapped, but is on the run with Sophie, a pregnant girlfriend who has become a pawn in a Russian baby-smuggling racket. Instead of a frightened teenager, Patrick soon discovers that Amanda has become skilled in stealing identities and forging documents. She is also one year away from an impressive inheritance (compliments of a lawsuit against the Boston police department for their negligent handling of her original kidnapping). In order to survive, Amanda has also developed a cold, rational demeanor and an ability to deceive, defend herself and, if necessary, to kill.
As Moonlight Mile moves from one violent encounter to another, Lehane stokes the mounting tension by increasing the danger. When the Russian drug lord becomes aware of Patrick’s investigation, Yefin informs him that Angie and Gabbie will be murdered if Patrick does not do as he is told. To complicate matters further,Yefin’s boss, Kirill Borzakov and his demented wife, Violeta have decided to “adopt” Sophie’s baby. When the gunman who is sent to collect the child (newly born and named Claire) is killed in a confrontation with Amanda, Sophie and Sophie’s boyfriend, Zippo (his last name is Lighter), the two young women flee, taking the dead gunman’s backpack, which just happens to contain the Belarus Cross, a religious relic with a long, bloody history that had been acquired by Kirill. Yefin tells Patrick that they have a bargain. The Belarus Cross and the baby Claire for the lives of Angie, Gabby and Amanda. Yeah, it is complicated.
But, let’s not forget Bubba. In all of Lahane’s novels about Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, the two detectives have a loyal friend who is muscular, psychotic and devoid of principles. When the two detectives find themselves in difficulty (about to be terrorized and/or murdered), they call Bubba, who usually arrives and departs like a stroke of lightning — a kind of deus ex machina, leaving the field littered with the carcasses of crime lords, rapists and pedophiles. Suffice it to say that Bubba is summonsed (twice) in Moonlight Mile.
Behind all of the gunfire, bloodshed and perversity in Moonlight Mile, there is a theme that dominates both this novel and Gone, Baby, Gone. It is a tragic rumination on the consequences of child abuse and neglect. Lehane’s villains are the people who engender and promote this sad state of affairs. LaHane’s graphic portraits of apathetic social workers and negligent parents are as authentic and telling as his descriptions of his villains.
Although Patrick Kenzie’s constant struggle to be “cool” is a bit irritating (speak the current jargon, play the current music, and saturate his conversation with “pop” references), he is an appealing protagonist. For the past decade, Lahane’s skill with dialogue and atmosphere have made him one of the most readable crime fiction writers. Especially pleasing is Patrick’s (Lahane’s) unabashed love of city life (street noises, venders, taxis) and his knack for depicting children. Finally, Lehane’s ability to capture a frozen moment of terror is remarkable. Moonlight Mile has an unforgettable example in the death by Acela scene in which Patrick stands on a bloody train platform with two plastic grocery bags tied on his feet, peering at what might be a human nose and marveling that an Acela, running at top speed, “doesn’t run you over, but blows you up.”
There is no doubt about it, Moonlight Mile is on a predictable track: from bestseller to the movies, outpacing any competition by a moonlight mile.
Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane. HarperCollins, 2010. 336 pages.
You can be excused for perhaps having overlooked the recent fireworks, but a minor war has erupted over one of this region’s favorite sons (or, not-favorite sons).
Pick your side.
Horace Kephart, the definitive writer of Western North Carolina history who set up a home of sorts in Swain County and gave us an accurate portrait of the mountaineer as he was then.
Or, Horace Kephart, who wasn’t even from this region. Who gave us a not very accurate portrait of the mountaineer of yore, and, if that isn’t enough to make you dislike him, was a good-for-nothing drunk who suffered a mental breakdown and stranded his family to boot.
I have an unusual, albeit somewhat shallow, interest in these matters. I live in WNC today because of Kephart. My family moved to the Bryson City area in the early 1970s because my parents fell in love with the region while Dad was doing research on Kephart. My father, George Ellison, wrote the introduction to Our Southern Highlanders when the University of Tennessee Press reissued it in 1976.
Other republications of Kephart’s books, and new information about the man himself, have been taking place these past few years. This has set the stage for a bunch of arguing about Kephart’s importance, the value of his books, and so on. My Dad hasn’t been part of that, best I can tell. He just keeps working on the material. And there’s been a lot of it to plow through, because the Kephart family is providing boxes and boxes of previously unexamined documents.
Here is the central argument of Kephart’s detractors, though they aren’t necessarily as direct about it as I am in this rephrasing: Kephart wasn’t from here. Thus, he had no right to portray the mountaineer at all. Only those born and bred in these hills, with roots that go back for generations, have a right or the ability to write about the people of these mountains. Everyone else is an outsider and doesn’t “get it.”
Phooey. I’m not from here, yet I maintain I’ve got a perfect right to portray whomever I want to, whenever I want to, how I want to, in whatever form I desire. Fiction, nonfiction, newspaper or magazine articles, columns, whatever interests me in a given moment as a writer. Who is going to stop me, pray tell? And if I do write about this region, what gives someone else the special insight to say my writing lacks value simply because I’m not born and bred of the hills?
I was born in Richmond, Va. If I abided by the underpinnings of this anti-Kephart argument, I would only write about people from Richmond (of which I know nothing, since we left there when I was six months old).
The argument is specious at best, and arrogant at worst. Let’s take it one step further, and the lack of logic becomes clear: Henry James wasn’t from Europe, so he shouldn’t have included Europeans in his novels. Ridiculous.
Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he shouldn’t have mastered English and written all those masterpieces, and about British people, for goodness’ sake.
Sue Hubbell, my current favorite nonfiction writer, hails from Michigan. Shouldn’t have written all those great books about living in the Missouri Ozarks, Sue.
Here’s the other angle of this anti-Kephart fervor. Not being from here, Kephart just didn’t understand — he overemphasized the moonshining and illicit behavior, and underemphasized the refined dignities of the mountain people.
Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the neato thing about being a writer. You get to emphasize whatever interests you. And Kephart was very interested in moonshine. How it was made, and how it tasted. He spent a lot of time sampling the local offerings, and clearly became something of a connoisseur.
Additionally, if we are going to condemn every drunk who was a writer, say farewell to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others who found their muses in the dregs of wine cups and beer bottles. Kephart apparently often found his floating around near the bottom of a moonshine jar. So what does that prove about the worth of his work? Not a thing.
He was probably a lousy father and husband, but again, what in the world does that have to do with the quality of his writing, or his portrayal of Southern Appalachia? Not much.
A good place to take in the this-side and that-side of the great Kephart debate is www.tuckreader.com, a valuable recent addition to the local news scene. Check out the battle of words (both are being ever-so-courteous) taking place between Jim Casada and Gary Carden, both fine regional writers born and raised in WNC. Jim is from Bryson City, Gary from Sylva.
Better yet, read Kephart’s books and make an independent determination of your own.
For millions of readers, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind proved to be one of the most captivating novels of the last decade. Zafon’s talent for combining fantasy, suspense and realism produced unforgettable scenes that linger in the memory. As a result, Zafon’s name immediately conjures up the dark streets of Barcelona and the Museum of Forgotten Books. Zafon’s next book, The Angel Game, took place in the same environs. For that reason, The Prince of Mist is a bit of shock. We are no longer in Barcelona.
Zafon has has shifted to a different setting: a small coastal village with a mysterious beach house and a family that has abandoned their home in the “capital city,” because of the threat posed by an invading army, The reader may surmise that WWII is raging somewhere in the background, but its reality is not a major concern for Maximilian Carver (a watchmaker), his wife Andrea, and his three children: Alicia, 15, Max Jr., 13, and Irina, 8. Within hours of arriving in their new home, the entire family is drawn into a world of intrigue and mystery.
Most of The Prince of Mist is viewed through the eyes of Max Jr., who eagerly explores his new world and listens to his father’s tale about Dr. Richard Fleichmann, the man who built the beach house. When Fleichmann’s son, Jacob, had drowned in the sea near to the beach house, the father became despondent and died soon afterwards. For many years, the house remained unoccupied ... until Maximilian Carver bought it. Max Jr. soon discovers that there is something dark and troublesome about the house, the garden and the bay (which he discovers contains the remains of a sunken ship).
Eventually, Max visits a nearby lighthouse and meets the lighthouse keeper, Victor Cray and his son, Roland. At this point, a remarkably elaborate tale of love, betrayal and supernatural evil begins to unfold. In addition, it becomes increasingly evident that the Carver family has ceased to be innocent observers. They have attracted the interest of the Prince of Mist, a specter that sometimes materializes in the beach house, the garden and ... the sunken ship in the bay.
The Prince of Mist has an awesome diversity of seemingly unrelated factors that gradually converge to create a multi-faceted picture of evil. The walled garden near the house appears to be filled with bizarre statues — figures that resemble circus performers. Victor Cray tells Max Jr. an eerie tale of the sunken ship that crashes on the rocks some 20 years ago. The drowned victims included a troupe of circus performers. Eventually, Max learns that the only survivor was Victor Cray, a man who has devoted his life to building the lighthouse from which he could keep watch over the sunken vessel. Max Jr. becomes aware of an enigmatic image — a six-pointed star in a circle that seems to be everywhere. This symbol is associated with the Prince of Mist — the evil shape-changer that ... in time will touch the lives of everyone in this tale.
The Prince of Mist preys upon individual who venture into his territory by offering to make their most treasured dreams a reality. Max Jr. learns that both Fleichmann and Victor Cray were once in love with the same woman. Fleichmann succeeded in marrying her because he struck a satanic bargain with the Prince of Mist: Fleichmann would give his first-born son to the Prince of Mist. So, it would seem then that the drowning of Jacob Fleichmann was the fulfillment of this bargain. However, The Prince of Mist is filled with convoluted events that conceal surprising revelations. Max discovers that Jacob did not drown. In fact, Jacob was saved by Victor Cray, the lighthouse keeper. Cray knows that the bargain with the Prince of Mist has not been fulfilled.
The lighthouse keeper knows that there will be a night when the Prince of Mist will return to claim his victim. When that night comes, the sunken ship will rise again under the command of the Prince of Mist. The ship will return to the harbor flying the Prince of Mist emblem – the six-pointed star in the circle. The statues in the walled garden will heed the call of their master and return to the ship. There are numerous unanswered questions: Can Max save his newfound friend, Roland (who is really Jacob)? What about the budding love affair between Max’s sister, Alicia and Roland/Jacob? Is Alicia in danger, too? And what about 8-year-old Arina, who is suffering from a concussion after falling down the steps of the beach house (after tripping over an evil cat that is probably the Prince of Mist in one of his many incarnations?
Well, enough. The Prince of Mist is packed with omens of evil and portents of good. In addition, the shape-changing demon that lurks in the darkness is constantly making cryptic statements about the nature of time, implying that he can stop it, move it forward or make it repeat itself. In fact, his powers are so prodigious no one stands a chance. Yet, in the end ...
This is a work of fantasy and it is targeted for “young adults.” That explains why many of Zafon’s literary skills are missing from The Prince of Mist. For example, the erotic details that made The Shadow of the Wind memorable are missing. So are the dark emotions that drive the men and women through Barcelona’s streets in The Angel Game. As a consequence, the characters in The Prince of Mist seem to love, hate and perform acts of great courage (defying impossible odds) for no discernible reason.
However, one admirable possibility remains. The Prince of Mist will make a great movie. It makes no difference whether the film is animated like an old Disney movie or lavishly produced like a Star Wars epic, this modest narrative will serve as a template. Perhaps, in its final incarnation it will make sense.
The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 200 pages
Reading So Cold the River may give many readers a weird sense of déjà vu — a feeling that they have been here before. When the protagonist, Eric Shaw, travels to a remote part of southern Indiana to film a documentary about not one, but two spectacular hotels that are being restored to their legendary grandeur, the name of another legendary hotel may come to mind: the Overlook in Stephen King’s The Shining.
For a time, the resemblance continues. Eric, like Jack Torrance in King’s spooky opus, is an aspiring writer (plus he is an unemployed filmmaker) and failed husband. Although Claire Shaw does not accompany her husband to the twin towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs, she is a tangible presence since Eric sees his film project as a way to salvage his marriage. Meanwhile, he talks/argues with her daily as he wanders through the spectacular hotel that once played host to millionaires, movie stars, mobsters and world travelers. He listens to stories of intrigue and mystery — especially those regarding the product that created this resort and all of this fabulous wealth: mineral springs and a patented medicine of dubious merit called Pluto Water.
Eric has been “commissioned” to make a film about the history of West Baden Springs by a wealthy woman named Alyssa Bradford who claims to be married to one of the descendants of the man who founded Baden Springs, the notorious Campbell Bradford. However, Eric soon discovers that nothing is what it seems. Suddenly, his employer (who had given him a bottle of the original Pluto Water) cannot be reached. Eric becomes increasingly frustrated, smashes his expensive camera and inexplicably opens his ancient bottle of Pluto Water and takes a healthy swig. At this point, Koryta’s novel veers off the track into a nightmare country that no longer holds a shred of resemblance to The Shining — unless you agree that both authors frequently present events that can best be defined as “inexplicable.”
Shaw begins to have hallucinations and/or visions. To complicate matters further, Shaw is blessed or cursed with a kind of “second sight” that enables him to perceive both past and future disasters. In addition, the water in the old bottle brings Eric face to face with Campbell Bradford, who turns out to be “evil incarnate.” Since a local plant is still producing Pluto Water (now considered to be a mild purgative), Shaw soon discovers that the “boiled and purified” version allows him to observe past occurrences without participating in them. Confused? Yeah, me too.
Koryta certainly believes in giving the reader a generous supply of terrifying images, sinister characters and undeveloped themes. Mysterious trains come chugging out of the night loaded with boxcars awash in Pluto Water; an embittered descendant of Campbell Bradford, named Josiah Bradford, becomes a hapless slave to the “spirit” of his fore-bearer and devises a scheme to destroy the Baden Springs Hotel (apparently Campbell resents the fact that he has been forgotten.) A nice, elderly lady named Anne McKinney who has a hobby involving tornado watching becomes a stalwart friend to Eric. She also collects old bottles of Pluto Water. Kellen Cage, an Afro-American history major is doing research on West Baden Springs and becomes Eric’s friend. He also provides an excessive amount of historic background regarding an old feud that developed between Campbell Bradford and his Afro-American counterpart, a man named Shadrack. Somebody killed Shadrack, but no one knows who did it. In fact, someone killed Campbell Bradford. Naturally, it looks like Eric will have to solve all of these mysteries by using a combination of “second sight” and Pluto Water. Oh, and I forgot. A private investigator from Chicago shows up only to be murdered by Josiah Bradford.
Eventually, it becomes apparent that Eric Shaw is addicted to Pluto Water.
If he doesn’t get his daily dosage, he is plagued with headaches, dizziness and nausea. The most potent powers reside in the old bottle that Alyssa
Bradford gave him -–the one that has a red tint. In time, Eric belatedly discovers that the “red tint” is the blood of Campbell Bradford. By drinking the water, Eric has unwittingly provided Campbell with a means of returning to West Baden to wreck his revenge. In Eric’s first “vision” of Campbell Bradford, the ghostly specter tips his black bowler and thanks Eric for “bringing him home.” As So Cold the River progresses, Campbell becomes stronger and more tangible.
Koryta piles visions and images on top of each other until So Cold the River threatens to split at the seams. As this novel approaches its thunderous, bell-ringing and explosive climax, the story becomes increasingly unwieldy. Suffice it to say that the conclusion involves a truckload of dynamite, the arrival of four tornados that descend on West Baden and a frenzied search for the original Pluto Water spring that had been used by a local moonshiner in producing a legendary whiskey. In conjunction with all of these events, Shaw’s wife, Claire comes to West Baden to bring her husband home. Before that can happen, she is kidnapped, thrown from a speeding vehicle and run over (or was she?)
Inexplicably (there is that word again!), she escapes with a broken arm and collarbone to be reunited with Eric who has just been dragged from the Pluto spring and delivered to the West Badin hospital with no discernible heartbeat. Nothing to worry about though; Eric is a hearty lad.
As this book neared its conclusion, I kept thinking about the final movement of Tchaykovsky’s “1812 Overture” – the one that ends with a thunderous crescendo of bells ringing, drums, French horns and whistles. Tchaykovsky’s conclusion sounds like a jubilant celebration. Koryta’s final “movement” sounds like a train wreck in a tornado. However, as bad as this novel is, it was a lot of fun to read.
So Cold the River by Michael Koryt. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 503 pages.
Getting Naked with Harry Crews, edited by Erik Bledsoe. University of Florida Press, 1998.
The first time I ever heard of Harry Crews — some 30 years ago now — was when a friend gave me a copy of The Gospel Singer and said, “Don’t tell anyone where you got this.” I read it immediately, and in the parlance of some of my young friends now, Crews “cleaned and polished my brain stem.”
It was a darkly humorous tale, filled with gothic figures, murder, sex and mayhem. I’ll never forget the funeral parlor scene in the opening, the terrifying lynchings (two of them) at the conclusion, and the bizarre events in between. My favorite characters were Foot (a midget with a 27-inch inch appendage), Willalee Bookatee Hull (a black minister and rapist), and the protagonist, who has a magically sweet voice and a black heart. I still remember the quote, “In a world where God is dead, mankind worships each other.” When I finished the book, I just opened it and started again.
Occasionally, I gave The Gospel Singer to friends, but they frequently returned it unfinished and asked me why I read “that trash.” I had no answer. I only knew that I had read something that spoke to me as no other writer had ever done. For years, I read everything Crews wrote. The Hawk is Dying followed by the quirky Car (the protagonist decides to eat an automobile), Naked in Garden Hills, This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, and finally the book that told me why Crews appealed to me — Childhood: The Biography of a Place. In this painful autobiography, Crews, records the details of his own origin, a story of hardship and grinding poverty in rural Bacon County, Georgia.
Crews acknowledges that he grew up bitterly ashamed of his voice (that means his redneck dialect), his family and the place where he lived. For years, he made desperate attempts to escape the ignorance and poverty of his roots, only to discover that it was bred into him — blood, bone and soul.
“I have Georgia in my mouth,” he is fond of saying, “every time I speak.” Finally, after years of trying to escape his origins, Crews came full circle. He realized that the only subject he could write about with accuracy was his own life. Eventually, he learned that what he viewed as his greatest shortcoming was ... a gift! He could speak from the perspective of a poor white Southerner at a time when no one was doing that in Southern literature — someone who had experienced crippling poverty, a daunting host of childhood ailments (including polio), and the pity and contempt of those who judged him, including the school system, the privileged town folk and the world beyond Bacon County.
Crews came to feel a passionate kinship with outcasts — people who had been rejected because they were physically and emotionally “different.” In effect, for Crews, physical abnormalities became the outward embodiment of the inner disfigurements that we all have. Consider this incident from his childhood: When Harry was about 6 years old, he accidently fell into a barrel of scalding water during a hog killing. Jerked from the boiling water by a neighbor, Harry watched the skin unroll down his arms and drop off his fingers (along with his fingernails). He carried severe scars for the rest of his life.
A short time after the incident, he recalls sitting on the porch with a number of other children and turning the pages of a Sears catalogue. He and his friends amused themselves by making up stories about the people pictured in the catalogue. Several of his playmates wondered why “the pretty people” didn’t have any scars — no acne, no disfigurements. Crews knew that it was impossible to grow up in rural south Georgia (or Appalachia, for that matter) without being “marked by your environment” — scars, missing fingers, broken teeth, etc. Crews said that his playmates decided that the beautiful folks in the advertisements had scars. You just couldn’t see them. In a sense, that is what Crews finally came to write about — the scars that are not visible, the ones that are inside.
Getting Naked With Harry Crews is a comprehensive collection of interviews with the author from 1968 until the present. The title is a Crews metaphor for telling the unvarnished truth. The result is a bit overwhelming. Beginning with interviews that reveal Crews as a boastful, garrulous and angry writer determined “to write 20 novels,” the collection progresses through the author’s violent and provocative career.
Some early interviewers treat him with pompous condescension, while others view him with awe and trepidation. He discusses his alcoholism (“the dark twirlies”), his legendary propensity for violence — at the present his nose has been broken nine times, along with both hands, most of his ribs, his neck and both legs — and his checkered career as a journalist for Esquire and Playboy, including his famous pieces on Robert Blake, Charles Bronson, Vic Marrow, and the Texas sniper Charles Whitman.
This impressive collection contains a diversity of motifs. Crews has spent 40 years defending himself against charges of populating his works with freaks, raw sex and gratuitous violence. His defense is impressive and consistent, although the repetitive questions of his interviewers occasionally becomes an irritation. Again and again, he laments the rapid loss of Southern language (“Eventually, we will all talk like disc jockeys!”), the loss of family, manners, customs, a “sense of place,” the decline of reading, and the destruction of nature. He also unabashedly endorses blood sports (boxing, cock fights, dog fights) and reasserts his belief that mankind has a black and beastial heart. There are other themes, too: a smoldering rage at the loss of his own youth; despair at his lack of critical success; and the belief that his next book will be “the best one.”
Not too long ago, I saw a PBS interview with Crews, and it was memorable. Harry’s scarred and broken body was covered by tattoos and he sported a bristling, gray Mohawk haircut. To me, he resembled one of those ancient carcasses unearthed from some Icelandic peat bog. Under the timid prodding of his interviewer, Harry explained his appearance. In effect, he had given up trying to look “academically presentable.” He said that from here on out, he chose to be the old maverick freak that he was. Obviously, he took considerable delight in discomfiting his colleagues at Florida University where he has been a full professor for 20 years (in the school that had once denied him acceptance to their graduate program).
The final interviews in Getting Naked With Harry Crews are a bit more reflective and somber. Crews has a multitude of ailments now and he tends to think more about death and dying. “I’ve always been interested in the skull beneath the flesh,” he says as he considers his own mortality. “Now, I’m gonna find out what it is like to die.” Then, he quotes one of his favorite deceased celebrities, Diane Arbus, who said “My favorite thing is to go someplace that I have never been.
The publication of New Stories from the South 2010 marks the 25th anniversary of this prestigious series. Obviously, the folks down at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill know how to put together an appealing anthology. In the introduction to this collection, Amy Hempel notes that of these 25 short stories, 13 of the writers have appeared in this series before and 11 are here for the first time.
Most fans of this anthology will immediately turn to the table of contents to see if their favorite authors are here. This one has a stellar cast: Ron Rash, Wendell Berry, Dorothy Allison, Rick Bass, Tim Gautreaux, Elizabeth Spencer, Ann Pancake and George Singleton are back. Regrettably, Larry Brown and Barry Hannah (both deceased) are not. Over the years, many readers first encountered the works of writers who were destined to become their favorites in this series: William Gay, Tony Earley, Robert Morgan, Lee Smith and Romulus Linney are good examples.
In making their selections, Algonquin sifts through the best of America’s literary magazines and quarterlies: Tin House, Appalachian Heritage,The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, The Georgia Review, etc. However, the criteria for making the final selections are a bit ambiguous. Editor Amy Hempel notes that all of the stories have “a voice that is distinctly southern.” Certainly, the action occurs in distinctively “southern” locations.
For example, “The Coldest Night of the Twentieth Century” takes place in a Tennessee prison in January 1985. The temperature has dropped to 27 degrees below zero and a colorful collection of inmates are imbibing Lysol in a desperate attempt to keep warm while they launch an inept escape plan that requires crawling through the heating system to another cell block where the women prisoners are housed. Then, there is Kenneth Calhoun’s “Nightbooming,” which is narrated by a young drummer who has taken a job with the Nightblooming Jazzmen. His fellow musicians, who play nothing but New Orleans/Dixieland jazz, are senior citizens who are gradually being decimated by old age. The narrator revels in the charm and courtly grace of the Nightbloomers’ world only to belatedly discover that he is participating in their last performance.
Julian, the protagonist of Tim Gautreaux’s “Idols,” is also drawn to a world that has retreated into the past. Eking out a living by repairing old manual typewriters, Julian finds himself heir to a decaying Mississippi mansion and proceeds to spend his life savings in a vain effort to renovate it. It quickly becomes obvious that both Julian and the house are hopelessly obsolete.
“This Trembling Earth” by Laura Lee Smith deals with another unstable world where a woman living near the Okefenkokee Swamp struggles to support a family that seems either helpless or apathetic. The daughter (an unwed mother with an ailing child) makes no effort to improve her life and the son, filled with a self-destructive anger, is doomed. Smith is a gifted writer; however ,this story’s atmosphere is unrelentingly oppressive and bleak.
Then, there is Asheleigh Pederson’s “Small and Heavy World,” which is inspired by New Orleans in the tragic aftermath of a Katrina. Pederson’s characters are tree-dwellers. As the weeks pass and the waters do not recede, a community develops in the trees. Life goes on in the tree houses, and each day is spent foraging for food and supplies. Even in these desperate circumstances, the same domestic problems flourish: theft, adultery, father/son rivalry, etc.
The largest number of stories that share a common theme are variations of child abuse and/or neglect. “The Ascent” by Ron Rash captures the alienation of a young boy who literally steals from the dead and passes the purloined items to his drug-addicted parents who sell them. The boy has stumbled on the wreckage of a crashed plane; he steals personal items from the frozen bodies and takes the home. Eventually, the boy comes to feel more comfortable with the silent dead that with his indifferent parents.
“Jason Who Will Be Famous” by Dorothy Allison is a beautifully crafted interior dialogue of a young boy who is so starved for attention, he begins to fantasize about being abducted. (He fantasizes that he will escape, become a TV celebrity and will finally be loved and respected by his family and friends.) Another interior dialogue from an unhappy child is “Eraser” by Ben Stroud. Having lost his father and finding himself ignored by his stepfather, the boy begins to make desperate (and potentially fatal) attempts to get the attention of the world around him. His preoccupation with his eraser (which has the power to make his school work vanish) becomes an analogy for his own dilemma.
There are some memorable creatures in this collection. “Fish Story” by Rick Bass contains a painful chronicle of a dying catfish. Despite having been skinned and beheaded, the fish persists in its struggle. Meanwhile a cookout is in full swing and the neighbors are impatiently waiting for their share of the dying fish. This is a discomfiting story that contrasts the festive atmosphere with the brutal demise of “a great fish” that threatens to become mythical. Bret Anthony Johnson’s “Caiman” has two alternating stories: One concerns a dialogue between a man and his wife about the dubious merits of giving a caiman to their son as a pet (“He can take it to show and tell”) while an underlying story touches on an all-too-common occurrence — the ongoing search for a missing child. A dead deer resides in the heart of “Housewarming” by Kevin Wilson. A father struggles to relate to his angry son whose entire life has has been a series of mishaps and mistakes. When the son discovers a dead deer in a lake near his cabin, he becomes obsessed with removing it — as though this single task will correct all of the results of his misspent life.
Without a doubt, the best story in this collection is “Drive” by Aaron Gwyn. Jimmy and Jill are on the downside of a doomed marriage when they discover a disturbing method of “bringing the magic back.” It consists of crossing the centerline on a dark highway, shutting off the lights and stepping on the gas. A very close contender is “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s No Way to Go” by Danielle Evans. Georgie, home from Iraq and haunted by nightmares of murdered children, allows himself to be caught up in the “family” of a former girlfriend and her daughter. When he allows the daughter to enter a contest in which Georgie poses as her father, he becomes a part of a charade that will end in tragedy. (The reader will long remember the marvelous story of the “Pop my Bubble” girl.)
There are other stories that contain marvelous characters. Uncle Peach, the good-natured family drunk in Wendell Berry’s “A Burden” is especially memorable. Ann Pancake’s “Arsonists” captures the atmosphere in a West Virginia mining town where the mine owners have abandoned the mines and left a handful of stubborn (and paranoid) landowners to deal with arsonists who burn empty homes each night. In addition, random nocturnal dynamiting a are eroding both the foundations of homes and the mental stability of the occupants who dread the coming of night.
The themes and images that characterize this latest collection are both perverse and dark. However, there is a singular image that permeates the majority of the stories — that of the dysfunctional family. In a larger sense, a primary theme in New Stories From the South is the loss of traditional values. The majority of the lost of wounded children in this collection are victims struggling to find love, stability and home. Perhaps the bleakness and pathos of an impressive percentage of these stories illustrate a literary truth. Good writing and great literature flourish amid unjust and tragic conditions.
New Stories from the South - 2010: The Year’s Best edited by Amy Hempel. Algonquin Books, 2010. 384 pages