Memories of the South blend with imagination in evocative, believable tales

September 20, 1992|By Diane Scharper


Edited by Shannon Ravenel.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

368 pages. $9.95 (paperback).

"What writes itself in me is too intense for the light-weight American magazines," said an unnamed writer in a letter, dated 1919. "My last story took me months to write, and I had to ruin it by tacking on to it a happy ending -- or starve." This letter was quoted in the introductory essay to the "Best American Short Stories of 1919." The essay went on to describe the unimaginative, flat landscape of an American fiction that failed to measure the hopes of the nation's soul.

Contemporary American fiction, though, is anything but flat. Here are Larry Brown's comments about his story, "Roadside Resurrection": "The story took me a week to write and eight months to get it to where it is right now. It's about as Southern as I can get: Jesus, Elvis, faith healers, overweight women, sex, incest, truckers, pickups, goats, pistols, sin, and faith, and redemption. I wanted everything I could get in here."

Appearing in "New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, 1992," Mr. Brown's work is one of 17 stories, each a powerful example of the story writer's art. Annual anthologies, like this one, have furthered that art.

Shannon Ravenel, editor for "New Stories From the South," has chosen the material in this collection from literary journals, mostly "little" magazines. Ms. Ravenel believes that America's best writers establish themselves and continue to publish in such magazines.

The writers she includes focus on diverse subjects, from the musing of a 100-year-old man ("A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain") to the sexual guilt/innocence of a 9-year-old girl ("Economics"). The protagonists cope with everything from AIDS Lilacs") to earthquakes ("Like Hands on a Cave Wall"), to the effects of rape ("Quitting Smoking").

Most of the stories, as one would expect, are set in the South. Some (one of the stories occurs in Massachusetts, another in Colorado, another in Indiana) happen in a South that is more a state of mind than of place. The atmosphere of the collection, however, suggests the steamy, Southern magic of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner.

The emotional texture is full,rich, evocative. Peter Taylor writes of Lizzie Pettigru, who makes a compact with a dark spirit conjured by her imagination ("The Witch of Owl Mountain Springs"). And ** readers, too, feel bewitched, as this story -- and everything in this anthology -- flows smoothly and inexorably to conclusions that feel right. Nothing seems tacked on.

The plots are genuine, the conflicts true-to-life and believable. Reading the author's comments on their work, you learn something about creating art out of words. Measuring both our hope and our despair, these writers present close-ups of the nation's body and soul in all its gut-wrenching angst.

The most dramatic story in this collection, "Like Hands on a Cave Wall," by Karen Minton, puts its exquisitely drawn characters into a highly unusual situation. An earthquake traps Millard Royle, a drifter, in the crawl space under a house, where he has been hiding out for the last several months. The story opens just moments before the earthquake starts. Soon Royle, pinned between the hard earth and a wooden beam, serves as a wedge halting the earth in its slide.

Mr. Brown, in his story, "A Roadside Resurrection," has created unforgettable characters: Mr. Redding is a gray-haired -- "his sideburns stick out from a reversible cap" -- chain smoker with emphysema. Twenty years ago, he could do a pretty good imitation of Elvis. Now he can hardly breathe. He gets through a fit of coughing, lights a cigarette, takes one suck, then begins coughing again. When the story opens, Redding's wife, Flenco -- pink rollers in her hair, fingernails painted a bright red -- is driving her husband (he wears penny loafers with pennies in them, yellow socks and madras shorts) to the healer.

All of these stories are unforgettable. They exemplify that TC moment when, as Nanci Kincaid, one of the authors represented here, explains, "The writer releases a memory from the confines of its historical place." Memory attracts whatever extraneous substance it will. It blends with the imagination and floats through it. Then together, memory and imagination make stories that surprise even the writer.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

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