A Writing Study, Southern Style
Despite their cruel inaccuracies, stereotypes possess an allure that is often irresistible. These little word gems have the potential to describe a person more succinctly than any other cumbersome combination of nouns and adjectives. Witness the writer type. Definition: depressed, well-read (or claiming to be), with a penchant for liquor and cigarettes, awkward in social situations, though still endowed with a sense of dry wit (which may be mistaken for pompousness), and a fragile self-confidence. But the most demoralizing implication of this stereotype? More often than not, the writer type does not write. The writer type hides under the guise of a writer and is, in essence, a poser, a fraud.
This stereotype is one of a few themes running through the short story collection Sentimental Heartbroken Rednecks by Greg Bottoms. Many of these thirteen stories focus on the act of writing, what it means to be a writer, and what it means to fail. Regret runs thick. I wouldn’t call these stories happy. Nor would I call all of them successful. But at the very least, the weak links in this collection contribute to the melancholy tone of the book, and set the stage for the richer, more complex stories, including “1967,” “Imaginary Birds,” “Levi’s Tongue,” “Heroism,” and the title story.
Almost all of Bottoms’ characters are lonely and weary, wandering in and around Virginia, North Carolina, and D.C. The narrators weed through their present dilemmas by examining their pasts—sometimes reluctantly, sometimes compulsively—as if bound to their familial and cultural history by a ball and chain. Bottoms seems to suggest that the South perpetuates both an economic and emotional poverty, and the people here are doomed to a life of mediocrity: “I was always floating around, thinking about some masterpiece I was going to write, my mind worked over by the ten-hour days and the driving and the thick diesel fumes and the unblinking sunlight. My incompetence startled even me.” There is a sense of predetermination, or even (as Bottoms mentions) of Original Sin, as if every aspiring Southern writer is guilty of failure before his pen ever touches the page.
Death and mortality weave there way through every piece in this collection. The opening story “Nostalgia” gives explicit details of a neighborhood friend’s father and a handicapped girl dying from a heart attack and a car accident respectively. The dying continues until the very end: drug addicts, fathers, mothers, brothers, even rabbits and dogs. But it doesn’t stop there. Bottoms explores the consequences of spiritual death in addition to the physical. Many of his characters are the writer types, full to the brim with sarcasm and depression, experimenting with drugs, fraught with homegrown anxieties and a nonexistent self-esteem. By the time you’ve finished reading the book, you’ve practically swum through an ocean of grief. It’s not that these subjects aren’t worthy of writing, but they are stereotypical, and as such, may have a tendency to sound clichéd.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. In “1967,” Bottoms evokes our pity for even the most unsavory characters by carefully piecing together the complicated relationships among parents, their children, and their children’s children. From the very beginning of the story, we know which characters will die and when (a technique Bottoms often employs in his writing), and this knowledge of approaching death draws on our compassion and plays upon our anxiety. The writing is simple and uncluttered, as if told by a storyteller to a willing listener. And despite the fact that this storyteller suffers from the writer syndrome, hoping (and supposedly failing) to be “that sad happy tragicomic narrator bleeding that jazzy blues-filled bebop prose, a dirty reefer-stoked martyr for the lost and the fucked up,” he is, ironically, recording his own stories and preserving the memory of those people who would otherwise be forgotten.
At the center of this collection, standing as the main point of reference, is the title story “Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks.” Here, the narrator examines the life of Southern writer Breece D’J Pancake and compares it to his own. Pancake, who committed suicide at age 26, seems to be the inspiration for so many of Bottoms’ characters, perhaps because he epitomizes the Southern male writer: “Pancake was a moralist, a sad humanist, in the strictest Christian sense. His characters begin, wearing Original Sin like their own flesh, caught up in a world where they seem destined to struggle and fail and pay for their failure—gospel music or blue grass chiseled into diamond-hard prose.” It is this story of fact and fiction that becomes the springboard for the others in this collection. But while many of Bottoms’ characters are choked by their own grief-stricken stereotypes, Breece D’J Pancake stands true as the rough-around-the-edges, troubled and gifted young man.
At the very least, this debut collection merits praise for its startling glimpses of Southern culture. But the cookie cutter depictions of people and their personal prisons clutter the fiction and crowd the good stuff. Regardless of his book title, Bottoms would do better if he steered clear of clichéd sentimentality and went straight for the raw truth.