The South has a weird reputation, a kind of old lady place dotted with front porches and casseroles and mamaws. Once, at a punk rock show in Kentucky, the lead singer of a Nashville band lamented the small turnout of the crowd. “I think Kentucky is more Southern than Tennessee,” he said. It wasn’t a question of geography. He meant it as an insult. “Southern” meant lame, redneck, and backward, but it was an incomplete definition, one riddled with the easy stereotypes and contempt some Southerners find only in themselves.
You’ll find a few of those characters in Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, but this anthology is filled with writers whose work is anything but easy. Coeditor Brian Carpenter’s introduction goes a long way to explain the definition of ‘grit lit’ and ‘rough south’, making it absolutely clear of what the reader is about to encounter: “typically blue collar or working class, mostly small towns, sometimes rural, occasionally but always violent, usually but not necessarily Southern.” There’s drinking and cheating and all the other ingredients of a great country song, without the benefit of a catchy chorus. It’s the opposite of the small town life of Mayberry or Jeff Foxworthy’s self-aware redneck.
Harry Crews is the godfather. Excerpted here are sections from his memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, and another from the novel A Feast of Snakes, both filled with the sweaty desolation of people whose lives seemed doomed from the moment we meet them. In his memoir Crews writes of his father, a man he never knew, and the time he spent clearing swampland in the Everglades, cracking his boss’s skull open, and contracting gonorrhea from a “flat-faced Seminole girl, whose name he never knew and who grunted like a sow and smelled like something shot in the woods.” It’s a template for much of the rest of the work in the book, a map dotted with blood and sweat and all the usual fluids.
Maybe it’s easily parodied, like detective fiction of old with the hard drinking, trench coat wearing PI talking about the dame walking into his office. There’s a down on his luck, hard working man sucked into a world of violence. There’s a woman with a no good man she can’t shake. There’s a young couple caught up in the violence of crime and lust. The meat of any story is in the telling, though, and Southerners, writers or not, are nothing if not great storytellers.
Fine examples of this are Larry Brown’s “Samaritans”, a darkly funny twist on the idea of Southern hospitality, and an excerpt from Tim McLaurin’s The Acorn Plan, in which a man decides to “drink all the wine in the world” to teach his violent nephew a lesson.
Race is dealt with beautifully in the excerpt from Lewis Nordan’s memoir Boy With Loaded Gun. In it Nordan recounts hearing of the murder Emmett Till, the black teenager whose violent murder in 1955 galvanized the early Civil Rights movement. Nordan recalls not speaking up as the boys in football locker room joked about the murder, and the shame he felt at not wanting to stand out. Another boy telling the others what happened wasn’t right, no matter the color of Till’s skin, and Nordan carries it with him always.
The violence in many of these stories might be explained away by the poverty the characters endure or the cynical notion that there’s nothing much to do in the sticks. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s as Chris Offutt says in the introduction to “Melungeons”, that there is a “frontier mentality” in the South, but “tribulation under fire no longer exists. We’ve had to create our own.” His story “Melungeons” centers on two characters caught in a generations-old feud between two clans of hill people in eastern Kentucky, one just returned from a self-imposed exile and the other a permanent fixture of the landscape. There’s violence in the story, but there isn’t hate or desperation in it. It’s carried out as a duty, a chore like running to the post office or stopping to pick up a loaf of bread. It’s chilling.
These voices, the writers and their characters, are loud and rowdy, echoing on every page the misery and joy and sweat and hate of a people torn up between their lot in life and their pride, a tension they can’t hope to reconcile, only tamp down deep with all the other emotions too ugly or sinful to reveal. There’s a chance you know someone from this world, or maybe you yourself are someone whose people identify where they’re from by naming a hill or hollow or, if specificity is required, a county. No matter where you’re from, violence, misery, and even hope run through all our lives, but the work in this anthology shows how, in the South, they run a little deeper.