Southern author writes about the books that mattered

Lowcountry Book ReviewerNovember 4, 2012 

The Books That Mattered, by Frye Gaillard. New South Books. 206 pages. $27.95

Reporter and author Frye Gaillard was one of the rare voices of reason in the South during the social upheaval that followed the outlawing of segregation, and he acknowledges that much of his attitude toward the racial question, and almost everything else, came through his love of books. In "The Books That Mattered," he lists and discusses the ones that shaped his thinking and changed his life.

As a child he and his parents used to read to one another -- he remembers "Old Yeller" and the story of a slave boy named Eneas Africanus -- but he was really enamored with "Huckleberry Finn." Through Twain's classic story he came to see that Jim, a runaway slave, had the same emotions and feelings that white men had. And Huck's decision to help Jim escape, even though he knew it was a crime, helped form his own views of the racial conflict.

Gaillard was 13 when he read "To Kill A Mockingbird." Harper Lee was a fellow native of Alabama, which piqued his interest in Southern characters like Scout, Jem and Dill. But it was Atticus Finch and his defense of the wrongly accused black man that made the greatest impression.

Another book he has read many times is Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," which he calls, "quite simply, my favorite book."

Gaillard first understood the black perspective from Richard Wright's "Black Boy," and through Wright he was steered to Carson McCullers' "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." McCullers led him to Eudora Welty, and then on to Lillian Smith, "the bravest Southern writer of all time." He talks about the work of Larry King ("a profane, rambunctious Texas roustabout"), Tom Wolfe and Mississippi's great editor and writer, Willie Morris.

But his influences were not all Southern. From Elie Wiesel ("Night"), he got a description of fascist brutality, and from Anne Frank he learned "the ultimate shining nobility of the human spirit." Kurt Vonnegut ("Slaughterhouse-Five") and John Hersey's "Hiroshima" showed him the shortcomings in our own morality. He talks about the "unforgettable brilliance" of Peter Matthiessen's "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," and Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," which "shined a light on a darkened corner of history, about which I knew nothing at all."

He remembers Alex Haley's "Roots" -- "the power of his work is undeniable;" the honesty of Rick Bragg's trilogy about his "poor white" relations; and Pat Conroy's use of the "agony of family dysfunction to explore the darkness of the human condition." Among his influences he lists everyone from William Faulkner to Herman Melville; James Herriot to Geraldine Brooks; Peter Benchley's "Jaws" to Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken."

Gaillard has written more than 20 books, along with his years as a reporter, and this work shows where most of his ideas and inspiration got started. Many of them are my favorites, too, and I enjoyed remembering them.

Edge of Dark Water, by Joe Y. Lansdale, Little Brown, & Co. 292 pages. $25.99

This Texas writer has won a lot of awards for more than a dozen novels, but unless you have a strong stomach and a taste for violence, I'd advise you to skip this one. It has been compared to "Deliverance" and "Huckleberry Finn," and it contains elements of both, but while Lansdale writes well enough, he is not in that league.

The three teenagers at the center of the story do escape their miserable lives by riding down a river on a raft, but they also encounter murder, sexual violence, dismemberment (one of them loses an arm), and an almost supernatural monster named Skunk who always removes the hands of his victims. Of the three, one is a homosexual boy, one is a foul-mouthed black girl, and one is the narrator -- the most sympathetic but hardly someone you can admire. Her mother is a drunk and her father and uncle abuse both her and her helpless mother. Despite the horrors these characters endure, it's hard to really care what happens to them.

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