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Memphis Flyer Telling Tales

A review of "New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, 1998

By James Busbee

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998: 

New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, 1998
Edited By Shannon Ravenel
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 299pp., $12.95

According to workplace legend, employers review applicants' resumes for an average of 15 seconds. For a good short-story writer, that's plenty of time to grab you by the throat and drag you right out of your chair. Consider the opening of Mark Richard's "Memorial Day":

The boy mistook death for one of the landlady's sons come to collect the rent. Death stood leaning against a tree scraping fresh manure off his shoe with a stick. The boy told death he would have to see his mother about the rent, and death said he was not there to collect the rent.

Boom, as John Madden might say if he were an English professor. Right there, you've got the genesis of a great story, with ordinariness and magic realism, violence and sly humor colliding all at once, and things only get better. Richard's story is one of the best selections from the latest installment of New Stories From The South: The Year's Best 1998, an anthology that consistently features some of the finest short fiction available today, regardless of region.

Collecting Southern stories is an excellent way to mire yourself in the midst of a cultural and academic war, and the series has had to navigate such straits for each of its 13 editions. On one side are numbed postmodernists who declare that there is nothing unique about the South any longer; on the other are the tweedy critics who whine that the current crop of Southern writers couldn't carry the typing paper of William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.

Series editor Shannon Ravenel spent the first 11 years of the collection writing prefaces that justified the existence of a unique Southern literature descended and yet distinct from Faulkner et al (Most of the earlier anthologies remain in print, and are worth picking up for Ravenel's introductions alone.) Beginning last year, Ravenel turned the task over to the writers themselves, allowing the authors whose work appears in that edition to take their cracks at the subject of "Southernness" in literature.

So how does one determine what's eligible for a collection of Southern literature? Must it be published in a Southern magazine? No, there are selections from as far afield as Ontario, Canada, here. Must the author be from the South? Nope, guess again there are writers here from Utah and (gah!) New England. Must it have a Southern setting? It helps, but many of the stories here are of the anonymous settings that could be anywhere in America. No, in short, Southern literature is like obscenity you'll know it when you see it. But enough analysis on to some of the 20 stories:

Tim Gautreaux offers up "Sorry Blood," a disturbing little tale of a layabout drunk who convinces an Alzheimer's-stricken man that he's the drunk's father and then promptly puts him to work around the house. Sara Powers' "The Baker's Wife" features a sharp premise a newly married couple decides to weave three lies apiece into an evening's conversation; when the husband can't remember the third lie he told, the wife's mind wanders in all the wrong directions. And Wendy Brenner's "Nipple" kicks off with another of those killer openers: "In the cafeteria fourth period Lori said she had her Uncle Bert's nipple in an envelope."

Frederick Barthelme's "The Lesson" is a witty update of "A&P," John Updike's classic tale of grocery-store-employee life, with the depravity of Fargo and the salaciousness of the Starr Report tossed in. And in "Girls Like You," Jennifer Moses manages the tricky task of writing in the dialect of a black, teenaged mother without coming off as patronizing.

Of course, many readers' mileage will vary, and the breadth of New Stories ensures that not every story will hit home with everyone. Stephen Dixon's "The Poet," for example, while an interesting story about the many encounters of a journalist and a minor poet who can never remember their previous meetings, is far too academic, full of windy, looping dialogue and characters who lecture rather than speak. And Scott Ely's "Talk Radio" is an intriguing tale of a talk-radio host who encounters the Vietnamese broadcaster who was on the other side of battle lines 25 years ago, but other than the locale (the Carolinas) I can't see any justification for its inclusion in this collection.

Even in a world where Oprah and Hollywood determine who gets the shelf space in the chain bookstores, short stories remain the proving ground for today's best authors. Seek out any of the New Stories anthologies. They may not change your life, but they'll sure as hell liven up your day.

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