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Narrative Journeys

Valerie MacEwan

I see it as the globalization of the Southern experience.

Linton Weeks, in the Washington Post, claims that, by the mid-1970s, the "great run of Southern literature was coming to an end." The Fugitives and the Agrarians — movements in Southern literature — all dead. Weeks claims there is "really no such thing as contemporary Southern literature." Take Lee Smith's latest novel, The Last Girls published by Algonquin books last September. As Week's explains, it's got everything you need for a classic Southern tale, including a dead woman named Baby, but there's no mention of it being "Southern" in the New York Times' book review, or the Boston Globe's.

Like it's some kind of bad taste in the literary mouth of the reviewer, they're loathe to pigeonhole books as Southern literature. It's the Bubba Complex. Write about the South but don't admit you're doing it. Seems like Southern writers are schizophrenic. They don't want to be classified as Southern, lumped together as a sort of genre of writing. They want to be American writers.

But in truth, a story by any other name would smell as sweet. Local color is the foundation of any writing. It's like denying the human experience to deny the influence of the South. Donna Tartt, this month's literary femme fatale with a fine novel The Little Friend out last month, doesn't want to be lumped into a group of writers (Southern) simply because of the circumstances of her birth. Algonquin's New Stories from the South this year contains writing from Italy, New York, even Madison, Wisconsin.

You can take it anyway you like, but I see it as the globalization of the Southern experience. Just because we "leave" the South, it doesn't mean we've left it behind. The Southern experience is insidious, like eczema — it rises to the surface of our minds' epidermis and makes us itch. Storytelling is precluded by geography. Good storytelling that is.

And Southerners talk. Every action and reaction becomes a narrative. This is the basis for Southern writing. Remembering every detail of an insignificant event, and relating it to anyone who will listen — stranger, family member, hunting dog — just keep on talking and somebody or something will nod in agreement.

Like last week. I stopped in at the Pig (also known as the Piggly Wiggly grocery store), the one next to the closed-down K-Mart on Fifteenth Street. My neighbor, Retha, told me the Pig had home-grown yellow squash and really good cantaloupes. Besides, I needed to pick up a box of wine for my 85 year old mom. As I was smelling the melons, I noticed a friend I hadn't seen in years, sorting through the Vidalia onions. Darlene Woolard. I knew her from the assembly line at Stanadyne when I did statistical process control there, years ago. That's the Northstar system — the one GM touts as the be-all-end-all of car guts — Stanadyne makes parts for that. And filters, oil and gas filters.

It's a dingy, turn of the century (19th, I mean) type of manufacturing plant. Dark, dismal, filthy, loud, smelly, dangerous... pick some more words to describe awful. Add cheesecake half-naked photos of women sprawled across the hoods of Camaros and Trans Ams and you get a general idea of the working conditions. Non-profit organizations with names like Northeastern Economic Hog Farmer and Golf ProAlliance, or The Southern Manufacturers of Stuff No One Needs League say the area is a manufacturer's mecca, ripe for the employment plucking. That means the minimum wage is acceptable and folks will work for under $6.50 an hour because there are no jobs or unions here.

Once she spotted me, Darlene let out a whoop. She scooted over to the melon display, grabbed me, and hugged me sideways so's not to drop her onions.

"I have missed you. Where are you working now?" she asked.
"I'm working at the police department, slapping car accidents and reported incidents into their computer. And evidence, I watch over the evidence room. You still at Stanadyne?"
She replied, "As if I'd ever work anywhere else! I got a 2% cost of living raise last summer. I'm full-time permanent and making $6.87 an hour, honey! You don't make that kind of money anywhere else in this county, not with them benefits you get. Say, you know computers, are you on that Internet? You always was on the computer when you was working in QC. Can you teach me how to use a computer? How do you do it, go online, I mean?"

Web-related how-to questions, computer tutoring. As if standing in the frozen food section of Piggly Wiggly is the perfect place to teach someone netiquette. Doctors and computer geeks have a lot in common, except they get medical questions, we get technical ones. It's the equivalent of someone stopping and saying, "Excuse me, doctor, but my wife has gout, high blood pressure, diabetes, angina, and she needs her legs amputated. Could you stop grocery shopping long enough to take a look at her. She's over in my cart on aisle five, just left of the frozen peas." But I nod in Darlene's direction, admit I am online, and she begins.

"I'm beginning to fear the Internet is a 'gonna' take away Larry Wayne away from me. Of a night, he'll call up and order "pay for view" WWF , 'cause he does love Stone Cold Steve Austin, then he turns his chair towards the big screen, boosts up that computer, and starts typing with both index fingers. He's got one eye cocked on the TV screen and the other on the computer monitor. "

I glance at the banner flapping above my head. "I'm sticking with the Pig" in white letters on a blue background. I remember I need to buy Rob a Piggly Wiggly t-shirt to send to his friend in Australia.

"He don't hear nothing I say, won't let me use the telephone on account of it will interfere with his downloads, and he smacks LW Jr. on the fanny every time he blocks the view of the wrestling arena. I told him I'd work double-shift a couple a times a month so's we could afford a second phone line, but he tells me I got from when I get home at 4:00 to talk to my sister until he gets in at 6:00. Well, Lynette don't get off work until 5:30 and it takes her fifteen minutes to get home, so I don't get much of that quality time with her. And besides, LW Jr.'s likely to scream and holler if I don't give him his Spiderman Spaghetti os by 5:30, so my afternoons are full.

I'm considering putting my tongue on the side of the freezer, just above the Cool Whip, to see if it'll stick like it did to the flagpole in front of Echols School, the first day it snowed, back in 1964.

"One of these days, I'm gonna ride that Internet world wide wave. I got Carla, down at the plant, teaching me how to send email. She's got one of them modems on her computer in Human Resources and she's been showing me how to surf. Can you help me to understand how to get online? How do you get the phone to dial the right number that gets the Internet instead of Mama or Georgie Langdon?"

I say to Darlene, "You need to go to the community college and take a class. It's probably less than $35 and they'll teach you what you need to know. They have classes in the evenings. Call them today."

As I move on to the checkout line, there's a black man wearing a navy blue Stanadyne shop shirt. His name's on the patch above the pocket. Frankie.

"I heard you were at the PD. Gotta be cleaner than the QC room at Stanadyne," he says. "How's it going?"
"Great, you?" I reply.
"Can't complain."

He shifts his groceries around in his arms. He doesn't have a cart. He's holding a frozen turkey like a sleeping infant and a five pound bag of oranges hangs from his pinky finger. He puts the frozen turkey on top of the rack of gum and Lifesavers.

"That's too cold to hang on to. You having a party?" he asks as he eyes the box of wine in my shopping cart.
"No, it's for Mama. Keeps her sane."
"Keeps everybody sane." he replies.

Southern literature, it's not dead. All it takes is a trip to Piggly Wiggly.

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