October 5, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH: 1999, THE YEAR'S BEST
ed., Shannon Ravenel
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1999.
The introduction to this annual collection is written by Tony Early, who sternly cautions Southern writers to avoid the many bad imitations of Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P. O." His concern is with "caricature, overstated eccentricity, and broadly drawn humor, that has come to represent Southern writing and, through that representation, the South itself.” He immediately declares that Welty's story is "a great work of art." It is the imitations of her art that fail. He concludes with a warning against ridicule of the poor and undereducated and ignorant and a plea for presenting them as human beings with "all their complexity and diversity and Christ- huantedness and moral ambiguity."
Michael Knight's "Birdland" could be read as a satire on life in rural Alabama’s crossroad communities, complete with its football obsession and elevation of Bear Bryant to sainthood. On the other hand, it is also a celebration of tribal community and primitive traditions, of the fatal attractions of life in Elbow, Alabama. The leading lady of the story is the Blonde from New England who comes to study African parrots that winter in this place in Alabama on a river's bend. The leading lady succumbs to its charms, while protesting, "This is not my life." Knight uses the story of Andromache to emphasize the importance of place and displacement in his story: parrots from Africa, a Blonde with Icelandic ancestors, a narrator who reads Greek classics -- all meeting in a place where time and distance have no meaning because nothing ever changes.
Knight uses mythology in his story, while Tom Franklin creates a myth in "Poachers," the title story of his collection. This fine story violates none of Early's rules. The writer's respect for all the characters who seem so uncivilized is carefully observed, until the one who comes to "civilize" the poachers commits a barbaric act that causes him to vanish from the land altogether. This story speaks for all the primitive cultures that have been destroyed or made powerless by their civilizers who act in the name of law or religion or economic gain disguised as civilization. It speaks for much more; the hero, Kirxy, delivers a strong lesson in true civilization.
For the best of Southern humor, once described by a student of mine as "one- downmanship," read "Caulk," by George Singleton. Told by a man fast becoming a loser while he is losing his wife, this story revolves around an action that is absurd, hostile, witty, vengeful and completely satisfying. The comedy is original and fresh, and, like Welty's in one way, an entertaining mask for a broken heart.
Ingrid Hill, in "Pagan Babies," set in New Orleans on the day of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, creates an atmosphere of dread from the beginning. Molly Andree, a student at Queen of Martyrs School, is going door to door on Zita Street, selling stamps with images of African and Asian babies on them to raise money for Catholic orphanages. She enters a house that is different in every way from hers, and the expectation is that something sinister is lurking in the shadows of the darkened room where the family is watching the coronation on television. As the story develops, the expectation is reversed, and Molly Andree finds herself yearning to stay in the shabby shotgun house. The contrast between this family and hers reminds her of another wish: "She wanted to grow up, but of all the grownups she knew, only Chloe was worth growing up to be, and she couldn't grow up to be Chloe." Chloe is her family's maid, the only person who makes her feel safe.
The rest of the stories in the collection have one odd element in common: all deal with illness, deformity, injury or death. These subjects are good material for fiction, but the conflicts between human beings or ideas or cultures are simply more interesting than conflicts with disease or damaged bodies and minds. The collection began to read like a cross between a dictionary of illnesses and a list of psychiatric conditions. Incest, ulcerated colons, heart transplants, senility, cancer and mental retardation are handled with compassion and meaning, but they cannot take the place of drama, of character development, or of battles the individual has a chance to win.
The best of these stories have the richness of detail, the use of place to create settings that add to the meaning, and the familiar but eternal problems of people trying to find their place and their way in the world or at least just trying to survive.