There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
If Edward P. Jones believed that editing the latest edition of New Stories From the South was some kind of honor, he’s not letting on. In a mildly defensive introduction to the book, he explains that he passed on the offer at first but then changed his mind, more out of guilt and obligation as much as anything else; one of his first short stories ran in an earlier edition of the series. He eventually said yes because…it’s important to keep tabs on changes in Southern fiction? Because as Southern fiction goes, so goes American fiction? Nah: It’s “because it meant something to have that story anthologized.” Living in D.C., he writes, his Southern-ness is more inherited than lived—processed through his reading as much as his being, which might explain why so many of the stories he selected stick to Faulknerian, McCarthy-like, O’Connor-ish notions about Southern fiction. Jones isn’t entirely to blame—he was working from a list of finalists assembled by series editor Kathy Pories, and university lit journals (feeders for many literary anthologies, including this one) have a way of spotlighting elegantly turned but familiar, risk-averse short stories. Still, the Southern flood here is a remarkably familiar Southern flood: Allan Gurganus’ “Fourteen Feet of Water in My House” comes complete with shots of Jack Daniel’s and moralizing about doing right by your neighbors. The broken mothers are very Southern broken mothers: Joshua Ferris’ “Ghost Town Choir” and Moira Crone’s “The Ice Garden” feature the observant kids and absent men who are the drivetrain of Southern storytelling from “Barn Burning” to Steel Magnolias. And guns and knives and axes are forever being hoisted as symbols of a reckless landscape. That last theme doesn’t entirely hobble Agustín Maes’ “Beauty and Virtue,” a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a serial killer. But he does lean heavily on what you might call the Southern sentence, a run-on creature that’s forever striving to make the rural mythic: “The Dairy Queen was still a Dairy Queen, standing where it always had, now flat roofed and without its tall plastic dome styled like soft serve curled from the machine into beige, flat-bottomed cones that children begged their parents for like he and Harvey once had, barefoot and innocent.” These are largely stories that attempt to shove the Southern past into the present: If the South is a place that’s urban, that’s changeable—a place that merits a new anthology of fiction every year to keep up—that notion only emerges occasionally in the 18 stories here. The best story of the batch, in fact, is a rarity that not only acknowledges a South in flux but has a blast poking fun at the clichés of two, three, four generations past. In George Singleton’s “Which Rocks We Choose,” the owner of a landscaping-rock business signs up for a distance-learning course in Southern Culture Studies. It’s immediately clear he’s signed up for something sketchy—the third volume of his history text is subtitled “BBQ, Ticks, Cottonmouths, and Moonshine”—but an assignment leads him to a group of eager scrapbookers and a story about lynching that’s more respectful and attentive than the wisecracks might suggest. In his note about the story, Singleton writes that he’s deliberately toying with received notions of Southern-ness: The main character is named Stet not because of Stetson hats but “so later on it would be a headache for editors when I wrote stet in the margin.” And the story itself exposes those Southern clichés as dying, if not dead, now that the whole country has swallowed up Southern culture: “‘There’s a whole damn business in scrapbooks? Who thought that up? America,’ I said. ‘Forget the South being fucked up. America.’”