Edited by Amy Hempel
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, N.C.
$14.95 (Trade Paperback)
08/08/2011 This volume is number 25 in the Algonquin series.
Each year a guest editor selects from the best stories by Southern authors chosen from over 100 periodicals. The result is an annual volume of fine, very readable stories. In fact, the success of this series may deserve some of the credit for the revival of interest in story collections, such as it is.
Amy Hempel, this year's editor, is herself an unusual choice. Hempel is in no way a Southerner or an author of fiction set in the South. She has in fact, chosen a number of stories set elsewhere, in California, Maine, Italy or even France, with no references to Dixie at all. Several other stories are set in Texas and West Virginia, technically Southern places, I guess, but do not explore the traditional Southern themes of slavery, race relations and civil rights, plantation life and sharecropping, fundamental religious fervor, a strong sense of place, family continuity, and the past.
This is either disconcerting or refreshing or possibly both.
There also seems to be no sense of a quota system at work. Only one of the 25 stories, "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere To Go," by Danielle Evans, is by an African-American. Her protagonist is Georgie, a badly rattled returning Iraq War veteran, who still loves his ex, Lanae, but needs even more the company of five-year-old Esther. Georgie pretends to be Esther's daddy, and complications ensue when they win a contest and end up on television.
"Arsonists" by Anne Pancake is also utterly contemporary. In a small town in West Virginia the coal companies are blasting off the tops of mountains. The explosions crack the walls and foundations of nearby homes and also drive the humans to distraction. The area is covered in dust, long-standing communities are destroyed and a rash of arson spreads through the valleys.
Perhaps perversely, my favorite story was one with many traditional Southern elements.
In "Idols," by Tim Geautraux, Julian, a humble Memphis typewriter repairer and restorer, inherits a northern Mississippi mansion .The place is a disaster, falling down, but seized with family pride Julian sets out to save it. Having no construction skills, Julian hires Obie, a handyman right out of Flannery O'Connor, who will work cheap because he needs the money to have a whole body-full of tattoos removed, including a Jesus who takes up all of Obie's back. Obie's wife hates the tattoos, calls them idols.
The story moves to catastrophe and farce, with the old Big House having a bizarre effect on the mild-mannered Julian, turning him into an arrogant, Colonel Sutpen-type planter.
There are, sadly enough, several stories of contemporary broken families or families in the process of self-destruction through drugs or alcohol. In Ron Rash's "The Ascent" a boy, Jared, finds a downed plane in the Smokies in winter. His need for escape from his druggie parents is so great he climbs into the plane, perhaps to freeze to death.
The life of Jason in "Jason Who Will Be Famous" by Dorothy Allison is so bleak he dreams of being snatched, abducted and held in a basement cell and plans what to say at the news conference when he escapes to freedom, a story snatched, one is sad to say, from the headlines.
Brad Watson is the only writer in this volume represented by two stories. "Visitation" originally published in "The New Yorker," is set in California. A depressed, divorced father is seeing his son for the weekend. There is no joy in it.
"Noon" is set in Tuscaloosa. Beth's baby has died in utero, and after a night of drinking with girlfriends in The Chukker and the L&N Club she walks into the Black Warrior to drift downstream for a while.
As with all collections, different readers will have different favorites, but the overall quality of this volume is very high.