Reading the South
New Fiction by Regional Authors, September 2004
by Hal Jacobs
for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Perhaps a warning label should be affixed to any collection of Southern short stories. Something like, "Warning: Contents under pressure. Readers should consume only one story per sitting. Side effects include lightheartedness and heartsickness. Do not read while under the influence of your dog just dying."
Fortunately, from three new collections of Southern stories, readers can choose a level of literary elegance and edginess that best suits them.
New Stories From the South, edited by Shannon Ravenel, with a preface by Tim Gautreaux (Algonquin Books, $13.95 paperback), showcases some of the best writing from the nation's top literary journals. This annual collection, now in its 19th year, aims at a high level of literary finesse with the very first story (originally published in The New Yorker), by Edward P. Jones. "A Rich Man" describes the downward spiral of a retired Pentagon employee who begins hanging out with a rougher, younger crowd after the death of his wife. With an unflinching eye, Jones shows the descent of a selfish, loveless man as he loses everything --- even his precious record albums with such titles as "Whose Little Heart Are You Breaking Now?"
Other authors represented in this collection include Chris Offutt, Jill McCorkle, Silas House, Michael Knight and Tayari Jones.
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Stories From the Blue Moon Cafe, edited by Sonny Brewer (MacAdam/Cage, $26.50), presents the third volume of work from writers who are drawn to Brewer's Over the Transom Bookstore in Fairhope, Ala. Though some of these stories --- by Rick Bragg, Daniel Wallace, Mary Ward Brown and others --- are more eclectic and less polished than the Algonquin collection, some have a raw power that's off the charts.
William Gay's "Charting the Territories of the Red," for example, details a lazy afternoon canoe trip that turns into a savage bloodbath after two backwoods warriors cross paths at a boat landing.
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William Gay <see review above> also appears in The Alumni Grill (MacAdam/Cage, $12.50 paperback), but this time as co-editor with Suzanne Kingsbury. This anthology, composed of stories from Blue Moon Cafe alums, has an overall darker, grittier edge, thanks largely to contributions by Tom Franklin, Suzanne Hudson and Brad Watson.
Watson's story titled "Water Dog God" is strong stuff. After suffering terrible abuse at the hands of her father and brothers, a feral child-woman finds a brief respite with an older cousin. They live in a wooded ravine where "the cicadas spool up so loud you think there's a little torn seam in the air through which their shrieking slipped from another world."
Any of these three story collections is a great place to find some of the most eloquent voices in the South today.
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Other new fiction of note:
Mindy Friddle's The Garden Angel (St. Martin's Press, $23.95) is a beguiling debut novel about two small-town sisters and the married couple from the local college English department who come between them.
Cutter Johanson, who writes obits for the local paper and serves coffee at the Pancake Palace, desperately wants to hang onto her grand, old, dilapidated family home. But her sister, Elizabeth, is interested only in hanging onto her dashing professor, especially now that she's pregnant.
Friddle, a former newspaper reporter in South Carolina, handles the juxtaposition of two highly eccentric cultures --- small-town Southern society and small-college English department --- with a light, quirky touch that keeps the story moving along and steadily entertaining.
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In Neil Connelly's Buddy Cooper Finds a Way (Simon & Schuster, $24), the title character is a professional wrestler who goes by the unwieldy name of the Unknown Kentucky Terror. A perennial loser inside the ring, Buddy has lost his wife to a slick film director and barely sees his beloved daughter anymore. But he seems to have a chance to regain everything when his boss decides he should win a championship match. Unfortunately, the fates have other plans for this tough, likable loser when a deranged fan opens fire during the big title bout. Buddy is down but not out as he attempts to regain control of his life.
Connelly, a former high school wrestler, teaches at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. This is his first novel.
An edited version of these reviews appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Sunday, September 12, 2004.