For the Heart, Not the Glands
To be a part of Southern Fiction, to be dubbed a “Southern” author, can really close you off from a larger audience. For all its beauty, and Faulkner’s spot in the American Literary Canon, modern Southern fiction is a bit of a cage. Arizona knows nothing of Barry Hannah. Maine has never heard of Larry Brown. And, like any good anthology should, New Stories From the South comes along every year to remind us that the short story, in particular the “Southern” short story, is alive and well in modern American literature.
What New Stories offers that the Best American series does not is a sense of variety. With the exception of the Michael Chabon edited 2005 edition, these days the Best American books are far too populated by New Yorker and Harper’s selections to claim variety, and even worse is the similar, often overly mannered style to be found in those stories. Guest editor Edward P. Jones, a fine short story writer in his own right and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World, and series editor Kathy Pories know better than to fall back on one style, and their close reading had yielded a collection of stories that are both varied and rewarding, not to mention complex and entertaining.
What the bulk of these stories have that many stories from, say, The New Yorker don’t, is a natural rhythm. The rhythm of these stories compliments the characters, the narrators, the arcs of these stories. The rhythm of the best of these stories, like in Allan Gurganus’ wonderful “Fourteen Feet of Water in My House”, is indelibly linked to characterization and make these stories seem all the more organic.
It is also interesting that many stereotypical elements of Southern fiction pop up in these stories. There are tough men working in junkyards, single mothers in trailer parks, broken men in the same trailer park trying to get their country records back from the single mothers, race, religion, senseless violence. However, where more cartoony, poorly crafted works gave these elements the weary baggage they carry, these stories carry these fictional mainstays well, and in many instances take a new angle on them. Religion, in Stephanie Powell Watts’ “Unassigned Territory”, is portrayed through the eyes of two Jehovah’s Witnesses. And rather than focus on the kitsch and condescending humor to be found in writing about trailer parks, Joshua Ferris instead focuses on his characters in “Ghost Town Choir”, making them all as compelling and heartbroken as they are hard to like.
The best of these stories drive their characters to a point where, as Edward P. Jones puts it, their world has shifted, in small or large ways. Great stories by James Lee Burke (“Season of Regret”), Rick Bass (“Goats”), Tim Gautreaux (“The Safe”), and George Singleton (“Which Rock We Choose”) all bring their characters to this point, and the movement there is often as harrowing as it is heartfelt and funny. Rubbing elbows with these established authors in New Stories are a handful of newcomers that provide some of the best stories you’re likely to read this year, in particular Jason Ockert’s “Jakob Loomis” and Holly Goddard Jones’ “Life Expectancy”.
Jones quotes Faulkner in his introduction, claiming he sought to choose stories that were “for the heart, and not the glands” and he mostly succeeds in picking work that is honest, affecting, and free of gimmickry. He admits that this is a subjective process, and much like his own work, some of these stories tend to run a bit on the long side. However, the successful stories, upon second and third readings, reveal plenty of depth to justify their length. Some stories don’t quite pull it off, though. The longest story in the anthology, Moira Crone’s “The Ice Garden”, has a distance in the language that keeps the reader from getting deep into a family dealing with mental illness. Daniel Wallace’s “A Terrible Thing”, while not long, seems to be more interested in pushing at some macabre idea of truth and honesty, and instead rushes to a conclusion that makes his characters seem more like vehicles for the story, rather than cared-for participants in it.
Overall, Edward P. Jones has selected another great edition in a consistently great anthology. One can only hope that New Stories from the South might receive at least as much consideration as Best American or The O. Henry Prize Stories or The Pushcart Prize Anthology in discussions about the modern short story. And perhaps, if New Stories readership expands outside of the cloistered world of Southern fiction, the short story might get a breath of new life.