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Wednesday, 22 September 2010 19:37

Southern stories don’t disappoint

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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

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