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Best of the South
Selected by Anne Tyler
A novel is a weighty thing, bound in unbending hardcover and demanding several hours of attention. A short story is ephemeral, enclosed in paperback or, worse, magazine covers, shyly begging 20 minutes of a reader’s time. Dull novels become remainders. Sorry short stories tend not to get even that last chance. Publishers’ perceptible lack of faith in the form extends to the authors: Too often, short fiction that gets off to a good start devolves into a formulaic shock ending, a going-nowhere character sketch, or a half-baked outline for what could be a longer book.
Best of the South was launched with considerable fanfare, defying another rule of short story publication. On April 20, at a barn near Algonquin’s Chapel Hill, N.C., headquarters, McIntyre’s Fine Books and Bookends hosted an afternoon reading by authors represented in the book. (Only two of the 20 couldn’t make it: James Lee Burke, who lives in Montana, refuses to fly; Leon V. Driscoll died in 1995.) This showcasing of storytellers emphasized Southern literature’s oral tradition, providing listeners with a spoken voice to attach to each printed page.
Reading aloud proved particularly beneficial to Tony Earley, a slender, seersucker-jacketed young man who shouted a story about pro wrestling in the histrionic style of an evangelical preacher. He provided the proper ringmaster’s voice in which to read “Charlotte” (as in Charlotte, N.C.), a tale about pro wrestling that explores universal truths about dating. Earley balances the hilarious and, yes, the profound in a lamentful “FINAL BATTLE FOR LOVE,” pitting Lord Poetry against Bob Noxious for the affections of a woman known as Darling Donnis. (Earley particularly impressed the event’s smug emcee, New Yorker literary/fiction editor Bill Buford; the time is now for Catherine Dunn wannabes to approach that magazine.)
“Charlotte” has the highest kitsch value of all the selections. Although Southern writers pride themselves on detailing situations of a nontraditional sort, most of Best of the South’s stories aim for a quiet sort of oddity. In Driscoll’s “Martha Jean,” the narrator falls for a young woman who obsessively builds a piece of religious folk art out of thousands of bottle caps. In “The Rain of Terror,” a dialogue by Frank Manley, an elderly woman and her husband tell an interviewer how they invited an amiable jailbreaker into their home, fed him supper, and killed him. Manley effectively establishes sympathy for the criminal by suggesting that greed, not fear, motivated this murder. “I liked him,” the old man admits, to his wife’s annoyance. And Lee Smith, author of the novel Saving Grace, presents “Intensive Care,” a resonant tale of a man who left his wife and kids to have three years with a woman who’s now dying of cancer. Despite a melodramatic premise, Smith crafts a powerful tale of following one’s heart without regret.
Best of the South’s sole shortcoming is a lack of stories by or about people of color. D.C.’s own Edward P. Jones contributes “Marie,” the story of a woman’s dealings with the District bureaucracy on a trip to the Social Security office. Reginald McKnight’s “The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas” describes racism directed against three black students in a mostly Caucasian classroom. Melanie Summer’s “My Other Life” imagines the plight of
a white, Tennessee-bred Peace Corps worker who wants to marry a
Senegalese man. But few of the other stories explore the black/ white dynamic, despite the importance of this subject in the postbellum South.
Otherwise, Best of the South renews hope in the short story—and in the short story anthology. There are no unsatisfactory odds and ends, just 20 bright spots. CP