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Short Takes: “New Stories From The South”

November 22, 2009

One of my favorite books each year is the newest edition of the New Stories From the South series from Algonquin Books. Though I got the 2009 volume a while back, I have only recently had a chance to look at it, but there was plenty to enjoy and appreciate, including stories by favorites including Jill McCorkle, Elizabeth Spencer, George Singleton, and Wendell Berry. But it was a couple of other things that stood out to me at first encounter. First, this year’s guest editor is Madison Smartt Bell, who’s not just a fine writer (obviously) but also a fine reader and editor. (I’ve used his book Narrative Design in my fiction workshop the last few times I’ve taught it, and it’s simply brilliant.) In his introduction here, Bell draws on his visits to New Orleans — both pre- and post-Katrina — to consider what’s happening to (what’s already happened to) the South and to Southern literature. He writes that

Rootedness used to be the core quality of Southern culture, holding fast to the plantation (big house or quarters), to the scratch farm or small town. That isn’t altogether gone, but it has drifted into polarity with the nomadic quality of so many Southerners’ lives. We educate most of our writers now, scattering them into craft schools all over the nation. They marry outlanders and settle in compromise locations….

Later, continuing on the theme of familiarity and uprootedness, he concludes that

The hurricane tore New Orleans to shreds and left it to put itself back together in a whole new way… but maybe something like that has happened all over the South, with no need for a material hurricane. Against the great longing for home we all share is the fact that so many of us are unhoused and uprooted by our own choice (maybe unreflecting choice) — that we have cast ourselves against the wind…. That tension, then, becomes a germ of the stories we now have to tell.

A brief introduction, but plenty to ponder there — an implicit encouragement for you to read the whole essay.

The second thing that caught my attention was how many of these stories — three of the twenty-one included — use second-person narrative, and this circumstance stood out particularly dramatically to me because those three stories were the first ones I read, choosing primarily at random as I flipped through the book. (It was only as I started the third that the coincidence unnerved me.) The stories by Tayari Jones, Michael Knight, and Stephanie Soileau each speak directly to the you here — just like in those great old Choose Your Own Adventure stories. In Jones’ story, “Some Thing Blue,” your mother has bought you a secondhand wedding dress: “So now you stand in the makeshift dressing room of the warehouse-store laced into this gown which was abandoned by a woman whose obligations were far less urgent than your own.” In Knight’s story, “Grand Old Party,” you’ve gone to the house of the man who’s having an affair with your wife, and you’ve got trouble in mind: “The .12 gauge in your hands couldn’t feel more out of place. No sign of your wife’s car, but maybe she parked in the garage. Use the barrel to ring the doorbell. This is what a man does when he’s been made a fool.” Finally, in Soileau’s “The Camera Obscura,” the you isn’t the jilted one but the one contemplating an affair, a new high school teacher struggling with her marriage and infatuated with an artsy photographer:

He lingers at the lunchroom table with no food or drink in front of him, and you realize of course that you’ve communicated your interest a little too clearly and he’s lingering just for you, and after he’s finally given up and left, your fellow teachers at the table say with revulsion (and with some affection, too) that he seems to “out of phase.” What do you do when this ticklish absurdity masquerades as persistent, budding joy? What do you do?

What do you do? Second-person narration is, of course, a matter of some preference. It can seem a little forced or mannered (or even overused, says my wife Tara, who’s encountered too many of these herself lately). But when it works, it does indeed force you into some interesting perspectives and some troubling predicaments, and each of the stories here succeed on those terms.

The 2009 New Stories From The South isn’t overall a collection of great stylistic experimentation, of course. There are eighteen other stories more traditional in their approach. But throughout all the tales I’ve sampled, I’ve found writing that pleases and provokes. As with the entire series year after year, this new volume has proven itself a must-have book for anyone interested in either Southern literature or short fiction.

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