New Fiction by Regional Authors, July 2001
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The National Enquirer meets the Bhagavad-Gita in William R. Eakin's Redgunk Tales (Invisible Cities Press, paper $14.95.). In Redgunk, Miss., UFOs and aliens drop by regularly to mess with the locals, who can be found performing courtship rituals in red pickup trucks parked behind the corner liquor store.
In this collection of short stories, many published in various fantasy and science fiction magazines, Eakin captures a wild, primitive, funny side of the South soaked in New Age spirituality and Jack Daniels whiskey.
In "Encounter in Redgunk," aliens abduct a brain-damaged local named Orange Decker and eventually heal his ripped nerve endings. Not only that, they deliver a jolt of higher consciousness to the drunk who caused Orange's head injury in a long-ago, hit-and-run accident.
In "Lawnmower Moe," a lawnmower-pushing ghost doesn't find peace until his teenaged son finally puts down his Victoria's Secret catalog, acknowledges his family's ancient Druid bloodlines, and takes a bush hog to rid the yard of kudzu and poison ivy.
Lost motorists pay 50 cents in "The Secret of the Mummy's Brain" to visit the Museum of Science and Egyptology in the back of Uncle Joe's Corner Liquor Store and Gas. Of course, they usually wink knowingly at "the mummy," which appears to be an ordinary mannequin wrapped in ace bandages. But the mummy is really quite extraordinary as he reveals a poet's longing for the shop girl who cleans him.
"Deep down you know you are not surrounded by dead, newly dusted things. Deep down you know there is life in the room where you are, life and love, just as deep down you know electricity pulses with divinity and plastic and knee bandages can be animate."
Occasionally these stories give off a wysteria-like sweetness, as when aliens become ideal lovers to lonely professional women in the Redgunk community. These alien lovers are so perfect that, when not in use, they can be conveniently bottled and stowed away. In Redgunk, visits by intelligent beings - even if they are from deep space - are greatly appreciated.
For a quieter, more traditional view of the small-town South, Minta Sue Berry looks at how neighbors come together - and keep their distance - in her collection of short stories, Who Is My Neighbor? (The University of Tennessee Press, $22.50). At times the stories approach Flannery O'Connor territory, as when a gabby woman presides over her neighbor's wake and tells all to the gathered relatives in "Exit Miss Tish."
Mostly these stories by Berry, a retired professor of English who lives in Dickson, Tenn., steer towards restraint, a sense of Sunday morning propriety. In "Next-Door Neighbors," a woman shares the news of Franklin Roosevelt's death with a neighbor who has two sons overseas. In "The Four Hundred Ninety-first Time," a self-righteous woman counts up her roommate's transgressions in anticipation of reaching the limit that the Bible sets on forgiveness.
"The number seventy times seven had in the beginning seemed to Maud so exaggerated that it was difficult to imagine that even Alice could ever place herself in need of forgiveness so many times as that."
Narrow Beams, by Kate Myers Hanson (Carnegie Mellon University Press, paperback $15.95), also looks at the unhurried rhythms of Southern living. Many of the short stories in this collection deal with how families handle the loss of a loved one. In "Stargazers," a young boy who shares a passion for telescopes with his long-lost father sets out to foil his greedy older sisters. After a middle-aged widow in "The Bear Ran Over the Mountain" watches the FBI arrest a boarder in her rooming house, she learns something valuable about herself: there's still some fire left in the furnace.
A Eufala Springs, Ga., woman is concerned with propriety on the day of her daughter's wedding to a half-Cherokee Indian in "Taking San Juan Hill." Her hopes for a proper backyard wedding are dashed when an old horse belonging to the bride collapses and dies, but the moment rekindles a spark of life in the grandfather. Most of the characters in this collection are quiet, withdrawn people waiting for a small moment of illumination. Kate Myers Hanson was born and raised in Atlanta, and is now on the writing faculty at Northern Michigan University.
For a smooth, Cajun-flavored mystery starring a young African-American investigator, Julie Smith has shrewdly concocted Louisiana Hotshot (Forge Books, $24.95). The Oprah crowd should enjoy gumshoe Talba Wallis. She's intelligent, sensitive, sassy and enjoys cuddling with her man. She also needs "me time" to work out serious issues involving her missing father. When her tough-love boss, Eddie Valentino, becomes waylaid by his own family problems, Talba must fly solo to learn which member of a famous rapper's entourage raped a 14-year-old girl. Readers probably won't notice that the Hardy Boys, unencumbered by a dysfunctional family, could have cracked the case in under 20 pages, or that Talba spends more time on the Internet than on New Orleans streets.
Smith is the author of 15 mystery novels and a winner of the Edgar Award for "New Orleans Mourning" (the first in her Skip Langdon series).
Instead of fighting crime, the three ladies of Covington, N.C., in Joan Medlicott's The Gardens of Covington (St. Martin's Press, $23.95) prefer sipping English tea. But life has a way of getting crowded, even for unmarried Northern transplants who relocated a few summers ago to a quaint Appalachian farm house. Especially when one of them wants to stop the locals from selling off their land to developers. The nice, open-minded Covington ladies will warm the hearts of everybody who dreams of spending their golden years far from annoying spouses and strip centers. The novel should definitely warm the hearts of fans of Medlicott's debut novel, "The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love."
Readers who enjoy a good bit of flashing eyes and throbbing bosoms in their epic-length historical romances will want to take hold of Charlotte Miller's debut novel, Behold, This Dreamer (NewSouth Books, $27.95). It has plenty of details about life on a large Georgia cotton farm, circa late 1920's. More importantly, it has a half-Cherokee farm hand with great cheekbones who falls in love with a landowner's young daughter, fresh from an Atlanta boarding school. In the end, the reader is faced with this question: Can a well-read, well-spoken girl find happiness with an illiterate guy who speaks in a slurred dialect? Perhaps if the first lady and the president can make it work, this young couple can, too.
An edited version of this appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, July 8, 2001