A House with Many Rooms
In the introduction to New Stories from the South, an annual collection that highlights the best stories written by writers who reside south of the Mason-Dixon line, Lee Smith writes “I once heard George Garrett say that the House of Fiction has many rooms. Well, the House of Southern Fiction is in the process of remodeling. It needs so many more rooms that we’ve got brand-new wings shooting out from the main house in every direction.” She is speaking of the vitality of the Southern short story, locating it in a state of flux, where it both inhabits its past and strives for something new. Now in its 16th year, New Stories from the South is edited by Shannon Ravenel, the talented editor who brought us The Best American Short Stories for 14 years and then formed her own Shannon Ravenel Books, an Algonquin imprint. One of the major short story annuals, it garners praise from a variety of sources. Newsweek claims that this collection is “further proof of the vitality of the Southern short story,” and the Arkansas Times once called it “the best annual short story anthology there is.”
Now that we’ve got the facts straight, as it were, I must say that I did not want to like this collection. I had been avoiding it for years out of a fundamental dislike of the title. Despite the fact that Ms. Ravenel, as an editor, has had a great impact on my own literary awakening, I bristle at the notion that Southern writers are inherently better storytellers because of some non-quantifiable characteristic such as geography. Having grown up in Wisconsin and lived the last ten years of my life in Minnesota, I am, for those of you keeping score at home, a Yankee. It is with this sense of demarcation, of taking on this word—which is an interesting, if unenviable construction—that I began reading this book.
Though it gets off to a slow start, this is one hell of a good short story collection, easily one of the best I’ve read this year. Just as John Steinbeck once wrote of the tantalizing power and majesty of the short story, this collection continually surprises in both voice and form. Midway through, I found that I had dismissed all ill-will and had given into the pure pleasure of reading: I had been inside the head of a teenage girl stalked by an older man who insisted he was a cowboy; I had followed a character who suddenly told me she was imagined by a lonely brother, a risk that could have backfired but instead cast the story in a new light; I had tagged along as a young girl nicknamed Sharky introduced me to her life with a half-brother Nunez and a mother who makes her living as a stripper. And this was only half way through the book. More often than not, I found myself holding my breath, flipping through each page, waiting for the next signal detail. I stopped thinking about the stories in an intellectual sense and opened myself up as a reader. This is the mark of first-rate fiction. When I had finished, I closed the book with a great deal of satisfaction, as if I’d eaten a fine meal in a great restaurant.
As with any good collection, both established and relatively new writers are represented. Icons John Barth and Madison Smartt Bell are here, along with James Ellis Thomas and other newcomers. Whether we are dining with an adman pushing the limits of political correctness in George Singleton’s comic story “Public Relations” or we are riding on a train with a businessman growing more irritated with a woman’s nightly religious outburst in Jim Grimsley’s “Jesus is sending you this message,” we are given glimpses into what Faulkner would call “the human heart in conflict with itself.” There are only a handful of stories in here that I did not like, and it wasn’t for lack of skill, but rather some inchoate element that prevented a sense of closure, one of those aha! moments that I, as a story junkie, have come to crave.
So now I’ve got a problem. I’m inclined to think that there might be something to this southern story business. Someone needs to come out with a New Stories of the North collection just so we could get into a good egg-throwing contest. We Yankees now have Charles Baxter, Rick Bass, and Lorrie Moore living among us, to name just a few. Very few of us have gun racks in the back of our truck cabs, and our beignettes are called doughnut holes. All kidding aside, this is an attractive book with a good price. It comes highly recommended. If you like short stories, you’ll love this book.