Reading the South
New Fiction by Regional Authors, December 2002
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Ron Rash's One Foot in Eden (Novello
Festival Press, $21.95) begins with an interesting mystery set in 1950s
South Carolina. The sheriff knows that a local farmer has killed his
neighbor. He knows that the neighbor was in the habit of wearing his
military uniform in the middle of the day to visit the farmer's pretty
wife. He knows that two shotgun blasts rang out the afternoon that the
All the sheriff needs is a body. But after he and his deputies scour
every part of the farmer's land, even under a dead plow horse, they
turn up nothing. It looks like the farmer has gotten away with murder.
At this point, Rash begins to explore the lives of the people leading
up to the tragic day. Amy Holcombe wants a baby so bad that she'll take
the advice of a granny-woman and lie down with her neighbor. Once she
conceives a child, she refuses to see the neighbor again. When her husband,
Billy, pulls the trigger, he decides what their fate will be.
Nearly 20 years after the murder, the story is told from the viewpoint
of Amy and Billy's son, a young man who finally learns the truth about
his birth father. Their farm in the Jocassee valley (Cherokee for "valley
of the lost") is slowly being swallowed by impounded waters; eventually
the land and buildings will be at the bottom of a power company lake.
The son's search for his father's remains leads to a terrible event
-- as well as a sense of closure.
Rash's characters have a heroic quality as they struggle to fill the
empty spaces in their hearts. They also have a poetic intensity that
speaks of a deep connection to the land.
When deep summer comes and the Dog Star raises with the morning
sun, the land can scab up and a man watch his spring crop wrinkle
brown like something on fire. It's the season snakes go blind. Their
eyeballs coat over like pearls and they get mean.
Rash's family has lived in the southern Appalachian mountains since
the mid-1700s. He is the author of three books of poetry, two collections
of short stories and a children's book.
Brent Benoit's debut novel, All
Saints' Day (Sewanee Writers' Series/Overlook Press, $26.95),
is a dark, lyrical account of two generations of the Bueche family of
Maringouin, La. As much as the characters try to escape the vicious
cycle of poverty, emotional violence and disease, they can't. Their
suffering and confusion is both exquisite in its intensity and as deeply
embedded in their psyches as the Catholic ritual of the stations of
From childhood on, Russell wears blue-tinted glasses
as a result of eye damage caused by his father. He sees a world in which
"even his mother's face was colorless and dull." His emotional
emptiness will be inherited by his children. One day his youngest son
will believe that there are machine parts inside his stomach that he
must cut out with a knife.
Russell's wife, Doreen, could have escaped this world
with a college softball scholarship, but she is seduced into staying.
Her oldest son, Whitaker, bears witness to her hard life, her long bout
with cancer and his father's frequent absences. She gives birth to twins
in the backseat of the family car that is stuck in traffic on a bridge
over the Mississippi River.
They weren't from any city or parish but were born in the air,
suspended above the cold river that ran dark and sparkled like swath
of outer space.
A few years later, the much smarter twin -- perhaps the
brightest prospect in the family -- dies when his feeble brother knocks
him backward on a concrete fishing pier.
The novel unfolds in short vignettes, the ugliness of
the world bathed in ethereal blues and greens. Moments of happiness
and innocence are rare in this world of bayous and sugar cane fields,
but they shine with an amazing grace because of Benoit's writing.
Benoit is a writing teacher at Louisiana State University
and a homebuilder in Baton Rouge.
Mary Robison's collection of 30
stories, Tell Me (Counterpoint Press, $16), displays the
talents of a writer who takes a minimalist approach to capturing the
sound and feel of sophisticated, urban people. In her shorthand style,
Robison nails those small, bone-jarring moments between people.
In "I Get By," a woman with three young children
deals with the accidental death of her husband, an elementary school
teacher. When she visits his classroom and meets his replacement, she
notices something striking.
"Whenever I mentioned Kit, I nodded at his desk.
When Andrea referred to him once, she gestured north. Toward the forest
where the plane fell?"
In "Father, Grandfather," an anthropologist
returns from an extended trip to her East Village loft, where her daughters
are staying. The story reads like field notes.
I left the kitchen and hid; close, but in another room.
I heard Cammie say, 'Here're all the supplements we bought for
her -- iodine, zinc, chromium, selenium. . . . Seals unbroken, soon
Cake called out to me in a tone that made my cat leap: 'Mom!
You cannot rely on food for nutrition! The soil your produce is grown
in is worthless!'
Robison, a contributor to the New Yorker since 1977, is a professor
at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Oradell Greengold is the brassy narrator of Meredith
Sue Willis' Oradell at Sea (Vandalia Press, $22.50). She
spends her days and her deceased husband's fortune cruising on first-class
luxury liners where young Greek deckhands wait on her hand and foot-rub.
While aboard the Golden Argonaut from Acapulco to San Juan, Oradell
describes her gritty Appalachian upbringing in a West Virginia coal-mining
town. Her first husband, a passionate union organizer, was the love
of her life. Her next husband showed her the seedy side of Las Vegas.
In New York she got lucky with her third and last husband, whom she
met while waiting on tables in a Greek restaurant.
In between reminiscences, Oradell befriends a jaded young California
girl and spends more time with the Greek staff than with the other ship
passengers. Oradell is a modern-day Mae West who unapologetically enjoys
her wealth and its privileges, which includes boozing it up with the
help. She never turns sloppy and sentimental, even when faced with a
potentially life-threatening illness.
Willis, a native of West Virginia, is the author of 10 books.
An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Sunday, Dec. 29, 2002.