'Stories from the South' expose pain

info@islandpacket.comOctober 1, 2010 

  • The 2010 edition. Edited by Amy Hempel. Algonquin Books, $14.95, 384 pages.

This is the 25th anniversary edition of this anthology, and the 20th I've reviewed, and it seems to me that the picture it paints of life in the South today is getting a good bit bleaker. The writing is first rate, as always, but most of the people we meet here seem to be living lives of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation.

The narrator of Brad Watson's "Visitation" is a middle-aged man on one of his frequent cross-country trips to visit his young son. Divorced from the boy's mother, his life has been a series of disappointments and he seems to have come to the end of his rope. He says at the end that "he couldn't gather into his mind how they'd got there. He couldn't imagine what would come next."

The storyteller in Wells Tower's "Retreat," (which Tower has written -- and published -- in three different versions) is also the survivor of many failed relationships, and is now living in a sparsely furnished cabin on a mountain in Maine. He has never gotten along with his brother Stephen, but during a drunken phone call has invited him to come from Oregon for a visit. He regrets the invitation as soon as he sobers up, and everything goes as badly as he feared.

The mother in "This Trembling Earth," is trying to keep the ultimate dysfunctional family together.

Her unmarried daughter has just given birth to a baby who will not stop screaming, and her son has murdered a fellow rattlesnake hunter and is on the run from the law. At the end she is still trying. "At night we cook dinner and watch reruns of 'Judge Judy,' and most days the only one crying in the house is me."

All the stories are not this bleak, of course. Rick Bass' "Fish Story" describes a 10-year-old boy's desperate efforts to keep a huge catfish alive until the time comes to cook it. A number of people try to take the fish from him, and one even shoots it through the head with a pistol, but it keeps showing signs of life, even after its head is cut off. A gold watch is found in the fish's belly, and the boy, now a grown man, keeps it as a kind of talisman, a memory of the past.

In Ashleigh Pederson's splendid story, "Small and Heavy World," a young woman remembers when their Deep South hometown flooded and they had to live in trees. She tells of her first love and knows her mother had an affair with the boy's father, and wants to ask her about it but decides some secrets should stay secret.

Dorothy Allison's "Jason Who Will Be Famous" is about a boy who copes with his disappointing life by imagining the day when he becomes a celebrity. Ron Rash's "The Ascent" also deals in escape from reality. A boy finds a wrecked airplane and instead of reporting it, he imagines repairing it and flying away.

It's hard to pick a favorite in such a large and varied collection, but there were two I liked a lot. One is Elizabeth Spencer's "Return Trip," in which a young mother's reckless cousin pays a visit and starts her wondering if he could be her son's father. The other is Tim Gautreaux's "Idols," which tells what happens when an aging typewriter repairman, living "in a sooty apartment next to an iron foundry in Memphis," inherits his great grandfather's crumbling old country house and decides to fix it up and live in it. Everyone thinks he is crazy to try, but he feels compelled to restore "the only grand thing in his family's history."

Few of these 25 stories end in success or even satisfaction, but they certainly reflect the editor's introduction: She is looking for "Singular voices and striking language ... yearning not nostalgia. ... I want my breath to catch at the last line. ... I want something I didn't know I wanted."

I think she got it.

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