New Stories from the South 2008: The Year’s Best

North, South, East, West, the essential question for New Stories from the South 2008 is what this anthology offers that others don’t. True, American southern culture is rich with history, some tragic, some shameful, some heroic, some epic — but can’t the same be said of any culture, any region?

The South, however, stands out in American history as a land that is both celebrated and scandalous. Though you can still make out the twang of Southern accents, the squealing impact of Deliverance‘s negative stereotypes has definitely dwindled. As the birthplace of heart-wrenching gothic literature, countless steaming culinary delights, evocative artwork that’s rooted in slavery, immigration, tourism and musical expression, the South has been infused with an energy that has undeniably shaped the American collective.

But New Stories from the South 2008 seeks neither to recapture the old Southern tradition, nor rekindle the gothic literature of Flannery O’Connor. Instead, Packer has selected 20 fresh stories that “… paradoxically evoked the mythic South as well as the somewhat bastard South.”

Which is to say, these characters aren’t simply the blackface minstrels of an antiquated age, but rather a mixture of the old and new worlds, generational hybrids. Picture the hippies of classic rock, raised on the dwindling back-of-bus mentality. Just imagine these new Southerners, neither cartoon, nor misguided by close-minded morals. Liberal, yet walking in the footsteps of their conservative, roughneck parents. Crossbreeds, torn between their reverence for yesterday and their embrace of modern civilization.

Each day, every hour, as people adopt a more global mentality and embrace diversity, of race, of religion, of sexuality, of culture and philosophy, America itself is being reshaped as well. No longer do we fear the unknown, but rather crave to understand and learn from differences. Yet no region, perhaps especially the South, wants its distinctive culture to dissolve entirely in the sea of globalization. In fact, our regional flavor, our drawls, our euphemisms, these are all a large part of what defines each of our distinctive personalities.

As Packer states in her introduction, “I often felt as though I was not editing New Stories from the South so much as Stories from the New South.” Yet the past always lingers. No Southerner would forget his roots or the delicious folklore that’s so sculpted the American landscape. Packer herself continues:

And yet we also can’t forget that the solution to the problem — the sit-ins, the marches, the hope of better days — began in the South as well. Every other region can jam its fingers in its ears and shake its head and tunelessly chant “Not in My Backyard,” but not so the South. The South is the backyard. And as backwards as we’ve been portrayed … the truth is that every awful and beautiful thing that happened in America happened in the South first.

Old-fashioned, proud, and stereotyped time and time again by countless Yankees, what’s a Southerner to do? Still echoing with the reverberations of church organs, the South that continues to be so rich with language and home cooking is now an interesting contrast between personal and cultural identity, one that begs the question: you might be able to take the Southerner out of the South, but can you ever take the South out of the Southerner?

This question, asked by Packer and platformed by all 20 stories within Stories from the New South, not only makes for a profound crisis of cultural identity, but for damn good contemporary fiction as well. Fiction that allows characters to explore their individuality within an extremely fertile, growing culture, which at times directly clashes with their archaic value system.

Take David James Poissant’s “Lizard Man”, and the homophobic father who comes to recognize his son’s sexuality after releasing a giant alligator. Or how about Kevin Moffett’s “First Marriage”, during which a newly-married couple makes a honeymoon pit stop in Tucson because of a putrid smell in the car, only to discover the sanctity and futility of their matrimonial bond. Let’s not forget about Stephanie Soileau’s irresponsible teenage mother, nor Ron Rash’s pawnshop owner who saves his ex-wife from a cottage by confronting her meth-addicted son.

Basically, all these stories are about regret, but it’s a regret that stems from an environment and culture that is definitively American. Or rather, the echo of American, the old country pulsing against the new age, wherein homosexuals are (finally) embraced (more or less), divorce, common, and teenage pregnancy, familiar.

What Packer and series editor Kathy Pories have accomplished with New Stories from the South 2008 is nothing short of exhilarating. Together, they’ve managed to puzzle together a contemporary South, one that captures the evolution of the America as it’s pulled in the undertow of contemporary society. Yet all these stories still manage to preserve the Southern gothic heart as well, what O’Conner referred to as “grotesque, freakish, Christ-haunted, and full of the slobber-heartedest lily-mindedest piously conniving crowd in the modern world.”

Open this anthology and trace the classic, dark, and poignant struggle of the South. Reading this year’s edition, listening to these snappy regional voices, you’ll feel that animal impulse of the heart, that instinct which reigns over reason and compels these characters to act according to that Southern nobility whispered from the depths of history and woven into their very DNA.

Uncle Tom be damned. So long as modern society encroaches on the territory of the old world, the ghost of Piggly Wiggly past, debutantes of the Kentucky Derby and the dream of a better tomorrow will reverberate in the chambers of the Southerner’s heart.

New Stories from the South 2008 continues the flamboyant, yet calloused tradition that refuses to shy away from authentic Southern drama. Guest editor Packer and series editor Pories have culled stories that all readers can appreciate. So make room on your bookshelf for these powerful tales, told with voices that roar rather than whimper.

RATING 7 / 10