This week I finished White and Seay’s anthology of contemporary Appalachian short stories. It seems like Appalachian literature has been a distinct — genre? school? — but lately the region has garnered some much deserved attention for producing literature of merit, literature that captures the place, the community, and the language of Appalachia as distinct from the more general “southern literature.” I’m not much of an authority, but for interested blog readers it seems the history of recent Appalachian literature begins with the godmother, Harriette Arnow, then includes James Still, Jesse Stuart, and Jim Wayne Miller, who have passed, and the living elders, Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, and Wendell Berry. Today the journal Appalachian Heritage is one of the best resources for the region, and they’ve assembled something of a canon here.
Degrees of Elevation picks up with the current generation, and provides a good survey of tomorrow’s regional elders. White and Seay have paired writers who have achieved wide acclaim outside the region — Chris Offutt, Ron Rash, Silas House — with up-and-comers, including terrific stories by my friends Mark Powell and Denton Loving. In the introduction, the editors say, “We do not believe any one view of Appalachia is a Truth entire,” but I still think the collection has some unity, which I think reflects the region. There’s a Naturalistic vein here; many of these characters are experiencing hard times that stem from circumstances (often economic) beyond their control. But rather than come off as victims, these characters shake their fists at those forces and do what they can, even when it’s in vain.
I’m glad this anthology has been put together. Interested readers might also keep an eye out for a possible companion piece, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol. III, which focuses on contemporary Appalachian poetry and was published this month.
This is a terrific read by what I think is an important emerging voice in southern and Appalachian literature. White co-edited the recent Appalachian story collection, Degrees of Elevation, which I’ll probably write about in the coming weeks, and he has a great selection of recommended reading over at GoodReads. He also maintains an interesting blog. Check out this post on the construction of a short novel.
Lambs of Men is a short novel about a Marine, Hiram Tobit, who has recently returned to his North Carolina home after World War I. He sets up as a Marine recruiter, lives in a boardinghouse with an old widow woman, and adamantly refuses to visit his father, Sloane. Just when Hiram starts getting comfortable, something terrible happens in town, which I don’t want to spoil. But the aftermath of the event forces Hiram and his father to confront each other and the past. The story moves at a quick pace (I read it in about two days), and the characters are interesting. What I enjoyed most, however, were White’s descriptions of the setting. He takes great care with his language, and every few pages I would pause with jealousy over some turn of phrase. I’d recommend this for anyone interested in historical fiction and southern literature.
This is a great book, though I’m not sure it’s for everybody. The central character is Binx Bolling, a 30-year-old stockbroker in New Orleans who is living this sort-of boring life in the suburbs, where he subscribes to Consumer Reports (“My armpits never stink”) and takes his secretaries out to the movies. He is summoned by his aunt to help deal with one of his cousin Kate’s episodes. The thing I like about this book is that rather than being a stereotypical southern novel about a wealthy family’s diminishing fortunes, complete with the slatternly and insane young woman and her austere societal stepmother (consider Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides), Percy’s novel is part existential manifesto and part send-up of that old trope. In his later novel, Lancelot, his satire of the Old South is more explicit, but here it is more along the lines of Peter Taylor, walking the line between the genuine and the send-up.
Three things of note. First, this was a welcome follow-up to Landsburg’s book (see post below) because Percy is skeptical of an ultra-rational worldview. Binx drifts around, suspicious of people who are too religious or too emotional, but he also can’t explain away his psychic condition. True to an existentialist worldview, he just is from one moment to the next. Secondly, this book is very, very funny. Binx drifts around fighting off the malaise and making pithy observations about the world. For instance, on the way to the beach with his secretary, he feels the malaise coming on and believes the afternoon ruined, and then an old man from Ohio does an illegal u-turn and rams into them. Binx is elated because the malaise is gone. Something interesting has happened.
Finally, wow, did Richard Ford steal from Percy when he wrote The Sportswriter. I won’t quote side-by-side passages, but early Frank Bascombe is very much like Binx Bolling. I liked the first Bascombe novel and hope to write something like that myself one day, but I’m surprised I’ve never heard anyone comment on the similarity between the two novels.
Slow going on the novel revisions, but I do have a handful of book recommendations:
- Robert Morgan, The Balm of Gilead Tree. Morgan is an elder statesman of Appalachian literature, and this book of his selected stories is excellent. Set in the Green Valley near Hendersonville, N.C., the stories move chronologically from the 17th century and the arrival of the white man to present day (or at least the late ’90s). I particularly enjoyed “Poinsett’s Bridge,” which is about a stonemason working on a bridge to connect the Piedmont to the mountains; “Kuykendall’s Gold,” which is about a young woman who marries and old man who has gold buried in his woods; “Dark Corner,” which is about an impoverished family on the road; and “The Welcome,” which is about a soldier returning from WWII and is reminiscent of Hemingway’s “A Soldier’s Story.” Overall, the collection is a good example of a writer plumbing deep into a setting, and the way Morgan explores history should offer an explosion of creativity to any aspiring writer.
- Patricia Engel, Vida. This is an excellent first collection of stories from a young writer I met in Key West. The stories are linked by a common protagonist, Sabina, a Colombian-American living in New Jersey and who migrates to New York City and then to Florida. The stories have a funny, sharp voice along the lines of Junot Diaz, though I think the subject matter is a bit more bold — a young woman confronted with love, death, terrorism, and ennui — all presented in a wry, unsentimental voice. The line that won me over came early: “around here, they card you to buy smokes and nobody has the nerve to break any kind of rules. It’s a town full of wusses, a polo-shirt army of numbnuts.”
- Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Franklin’s new one is a contemporary murder mystery set in rural Mississippi. It’s a quick read and a great study in plotting. Looking back on it, I do think the plot is a bit too neat, the characters not quite as deep as in Hell at the Breech or the novella “Poachers,” but it’s still a good read and a must for southern bibliophiles. I’ve got a review coming out in the newspaper in a couple of weeks, which I’ll link to.
What it is:
Larry Brown’s first novel is about two guys laid up in a VA hospital 22 years after getting wounded in Vietnam. One guy doesn’t have any arms or legs, and has been in the hospital all 22 of those years. The other guy had his face blown off, and the scar tissue sends him into the occasional seizure. He’s in the hospital tonight, telling stories and recovering the memory of what happened during this most recent seizure.
Why it’s interesting:
Brown cuts to the bone here. Somewhere George Singleton said a good premise for a story is two guys in an awkward situation, and Dirty Work is just that. Brown breaks a lot of rules as far as POV goes, because he doesn’t just switch back and forth with every chapter break. Rather, there seems to be an organic rhythm of the narrative, driven primarily by the armless/legless man trying to convince the other to kill him. Also noteworthy are Brown’s metaphors, which rise up out of the texture of the character’s background. For instance, one man’s snoring reminds the other of a D9 Cat rumbling. Or, a dude looking as uncomfortable as a chicken trying to shit peach pits. Language that makes you sit up and say “shit” because you know you couldn’t come up with something so sharp if your life depended on it. This novel isn’t Brown’s best, but it’s an enjoyable, haunting read.
I think I’ve read all of Brown’s novels now, except The Rabbit Factory which I’m not stoked about, so it’s onto his nonfiction. If you’ve never read Larry Brown, this is a good one to start with. I probably wouldn’t start with Fay, and maybe not A Miracle of Catfish, because those are best read after you’re familiar with his stuff. Joe is a good place to start.
What it is:
Gautreaux’s newest novel (2009) begins in 1919 at the end of World War I, and follows Sam Simoneaux, a department store floorwalker who gets fired after a child is kidnapped from the store on his watch. Out of a job, he joins the child’s parents, who are entertainers on a Mississippi riverboat, and Sam begins a quest to find both the child and the secret of his own past (his family was murdered when he was an infant).
Why it’s interesting:
The novel has kind of a Dickensian flair, in that the characters are a bit thin but lovable, the plot is rollicking, and at its core the novel has the same kind of moral center as a Dickens novel. The Missing is a kind of morality tale whose message is “vengeance is bad.” Characters who seek an eye for an eye earn terrible comeuppance. The novel is a good study in plot, because the story follows a straightforward pattern, without being predictable.
I prefer Gautreaux’s stories to his novels, I think, so check out Welding With Children. The Clearing is, likely, his most famous book, or at least the one you can find in most bookstores. Gautreaux reminds me a good bit of James Lee Burke, maybe because of the way he evokes the bayou, but also in that he’s working in the mystery/crime genre — a one-man private detective kind of story.
What it is:
Yarbrough’s newest novel is about Luke May, a high school history teacher whose childhood acquaintance moves back to town, and she stirs up old memories of violence in the ’60s and creates a spell of trouble for Luke in the present. Set in the fictional Loring, Miss., home of Yarbrough’s other novels, Safe from the Neighbors confronts small-town gossip and racial violence in the Mississippi delta.
Why it’s interesting:
I think this is Yarbrough’s first novel in the first-person POV, and the form works really well for him. All the work I’ve read of his deals with the interplay between past trauma and present tension, and the first-person voice allows Yarbrough to move seamlessly between then and now. I’ve always enjoyed Yarbrough’s work, but this is far and away my favorite , because in addition to providing his usual texture of small-town life, and the tensions between white and black and rich and poor, this novel contains his most confident voice, and the narrative sucks you in and pulls you through. I would have read it in one sitting if I didn’t have a job, and even then I was a little late coming back from lunch two days in a row because I didn’t want to put the book down.
If you haven’t read Yarbrough’s work, this is a great novel to start with. I’d also recommend The Oxygen Man for the way it captures the texture of the Mississippi delta. The only other book I can think to compare Safe from the Neighbors to is Ron Rash’s Saints at the River. Both novels have a narrator concerned with facts (a history teacher in Yarbrough’s, a reporter in Rash’s), and both deal with the interplay of past and present. But the novels actually tell somewhat opposing stories: Yarbrough’s is “a stranger comes to town,” and Rash’s is “you can’t go home again.”