Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Hard Times. Fragile Lives

By Leonard Gill

Eggs for Young America, By Katherine L. Hester
University Press of New England, 176 pp., $19.95

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  Last year, the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference of Middlebury College began supporting the publication of first books with an annual open competition and began honoring the winners with what must be the unwieldiest prize name in all publishing. The 1996 Katharine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Prizes went to Mary Jo Bang for her volume of poetry Apology for Want and to Katherine L. Hester for her short-story collection Eggs for Young America. What Francine Prose, who served as judge for the fiction award, deserves is her own award for possessing such an excellent eye; what Katherine Hester deserves is an audience grateful for a fresh voice in Southern fiction.

Hester sets her sights on the contemporary South, but for every "dogwood-lined suburb," "luxury community," and "castle on the Rhine" lake house she describes, it's the South commuters rush to avoid that serves as her territory in Eggs for Young America. From Austin to New Orleans to rural Georgia, her characters are either sort-of making it or aren't making it at all. They work in construction, in bars, for alarm companies, as secretaries, as dishwashers, as Merry Maids, as rock musicians, as TV weathermen. They live in flimsy apartments, in historic relics with wrap-around porches and crumbling foundations, or in postwar housing on the wrong side of town with windows nailed shut to keep out the burglars. Drinking and drugs cloud the past or help with the present. Lynyrd Skynyrd lives, and a road sign reads "Goodbye Texas, Hello Nothing."

They don't particularly feel like Southerners, and it doesn't particularly bother them that they don't. What does bother them is that they don't "slide past the edges," that they see to it that ends meet, and when either financially or emotionally those ends don't meet, they split, as their parents did, or simply carry on. The future, if there is one, is a toss-up. And for the men and especially the women in these stories, where there's little to go on, sometimes the most you can ask for is someone who'll lean, from time to time, in your direction. Expect anything more -- some longer-lasting connection to family perhaps, to community, or in rare cases, to heritage -- and you can expect disappointment. Best to leave your yearnings unfocused, the "deep rift between what you dreamed of and what you settled for" unexplored.

Escape is a byword here, but escape by what means, into what? An extramarital affair and momentary anonymity (as in the story "The Hat")? The streets (in "Eggs for Young America")? Mexico ("Labor")? A bus out of Alabama ("Going Down")? The depths of Lake Superior ("Grand Portage")? The depths of a car finish ("Alarm")? Or for Leah, at Girl Scout camp in "Deadman's Float," into black?

These are and remain open questions throughout Eggs for Young America, questions revolving around certain dissatisfaction and uncertain happiness. But you'll be relieved to learn the author hasn't hauled in that cliche-of-the-moment, "redemption," to miraculously clear the way for answers. A mirror held up to these questions may be all the clarity we need. Or is it the only thing we've got?

Katherine Hester, a young writer out of Texas now living in Germany, has a good grip on that mirror. Here's asking, based on the confidence shown in this powerful collection of short stories, that she not let go.

Current Events

* Marilou Awiakta, D.J. Donaldson, Arthur Flowers, John Fergus Ryan, and Steve Stern are the featured writers in this year's Book and Author Dinner on Thursday, October 2nd. The event, sponsored by the Friends of the Library and The Commercial Appeal, takes place at the Racquet Club of Memphis (5111 Sanderlin Ave.), with booksignings scheduled for 6 p.m., followed by dinner and a program of introductions and readings at 7. Announcement of Memphis magazine's annual Fiction Awards will also be made at this time. The event is open to the public but advance reservations are required. Make them by calling 725-8852.

* Brian Lamb helped found C-SPAN, serves as its CEO, and since 1989, has hosted Booknotes, an hour-long discussion program with the authors of major works of nonfiction. Booknotes is also the title of Lamb's recent collection of more than 120 essays highlighting his interviews with historians, journalists, and newsmakers-turned-authors. On Thursday, October 2nd, you have a chance to meet with him too when Lamb reads from and signs copies of Booknotes in the Reading Room of the Jess Parrish Library at Shelby State Community College. The event begins at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

If you miss Lamb in Memphis, you can catch up with him in Nashville, where he'll join an impressive lineup of more than 150 national and regional authors at the ninth annual Southern Festival of Books the weekend of October 3rd. The three-day event takes place at War Memorial Plaza in downtown Nashville and will include: Kurt Vonnegut; Ellen Gilchrist; Reynolds Price; Lee Smith; Larry Brown; Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier; Rick Bragg, author of the very well-received memoir All Over But the Shoutin'; and debut writer Gloria Gaynor signing her book titled (what else?) I Will Survive. Memphian Peggy Turley will also be on hand as illustrator of a newly discovered children's book, Pasteboard Bandit, co-written by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Turley and the manuscript's discoverer, Nancy Toff, will join other panelists to discuss the book and its significance. For further information on the festival, contact the Tennessee Humanities Council at 615-320-7001.

* Barry Lopez won the National Book Award in the nonfiction category for Arctic Dreams, and on Thursday, October 2nd, at 6:30 p.m., he'll be at Davis-Kidd Booksellers to sign copies of Lessons from the Wolverine. This brief tale originally appeared as part of Lopez's 1994 title Grace Notes, and the handy new edition, illustrated by Tom Pohrt, makes a handsome gift book for lovers of the great outdoors or lovers of the great indoors simply seeking wisdom. As with Lee Smith and Brian Lamb, if you can't meet Lopez here, try the Southern Festival of Books. This weekend, it's the Nashville scene that has it over Memphis.

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