Southern mind shines in 'New Stories'

October 31, 1993|By Diane Scharper

Title: "New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, 1993"

Editor: Shannon Ravenel

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Length, price: 347 pages, $10.95 (paperback) "The padded, sloped strength of his shoulders, the muscles I had seen dancing under a gleam of sweat as he punished, as he hit, or drove his need forward into my mother's body, had withered to wing bone."

The words belong to Hallam, ex-slave, standing guard at the federal prisoner-of-war camp at Maryland's Point Lookout. His prisoner, an old man, also named Hallam, had been his master and his father. Now, he studies this man lying in the cell, whose powerful form is wasted away: "As I looked at him," he says, "my eyes fastened like crab claws to his flesh."

Hallam is the protagonist of "Prisoners," Wayne Karlin's darkly poetic story, which is one of 18 stories in "New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, 1993." "Prisoners" is a highly evocative story whose mood stays with you. Many stories in this collection have the same power.

Several of the authors have studied in university writing programs. Most of them have been widely published; many have won awards: fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, recognition from literary magazines, such as the Virginia Quarterly Balch Award, and even the Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Karlin is a Maryland author of four novels, winner of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and of two Individual Artist Awards in Fiction from the state of Maryland.

Only a few of the stories in the collection come from the South. And only a couple of those come from the Old South -- the setting associated with such writers as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. All of the stories, however, come from a Southern state of mind, a state that has more to do with mystery and magic than it does with geography. That state of mind, according to the preface, is an expansive one.

Whether they are about a child living with an insane mother, as in Barbara Hudson's story, "Selling Whiskers," or whether they are about an old woman dealing with the insanity of government red tape -- "Marie," by Edward Jones -- these stories allow readers, as editor Shannon Ravenel says, "to live as many lives in as many settings as there are good stories." The best ones take you to places that you've felt but have never put into words.

Many of the stories are about family. Paula Gover's "White Boys and River Girls" looks at love between a white man and a black woman, who is "possessed" by her love for her child. Peter Taylor shows two brothers keeping vigil beside their dying mother's bedside in "The Waiting Room." "Major Six Pockets," by Lee Merrill Byrd, looks at a father's feelings for his two sons who are burn victims. (Ms. Byrd's story was one of the weaker stories, possibly because her focus doesn't seem clear.)

There is a tenderness to these stories. Richard Bausch explains that he was inspired to write his story "Evening" by the way his daughter tucked her hair behind her ear. The story centers on a grandfather's love for his granddaughter. The child's motions contrast with the old man's depression. "I took the gesture and the sense of joyous heartbreak it gives and exaggerated the circumstance. I made the pool into which that little gesture would drop much darker . . . "

In one way or another, all of the stories seem to have resulted from a love affair the authors had with life. That affair empowers the voice behind the story. The writer doesn't tell the story so much as the story tells itself through him.

Author commentary following each story suggests the extent to which the authors themselves are aware of this. Speaking about the origin of "Prisoners," Mr. Karlin says, "Once I had that voice in my head, the story wrote itself; I felt it was being told to me rather than written by me . . ."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, whose story, "Preparations," is included, also discusses the voice of his story. Mr. Butler was looking over some notes he had made when, " . . . I heard the voice of this middle-aged Vietnamese woman and with very little forethought on my part put down what she said. I experienced the revelation of this story at the moment she did; it was every bit as surprising to me as it was to her."

Mr. Butler's story focuses on a Vietnamese woman living in Louisiana who prepares her dead friend for burial by applying her makeup and combing her hair. You can almost hear the narrator speak, paying loving attention to details.

It's the kind of attention that makes these "New Stories" successful: "I stroked her hair for the first time since her death and her hair resisted the brush and the resistance sent a chill through me. Her hair was still alive. The body was fixed and cold and absolutely passive, but the hair defied the brush . . . And I felt something very surprising at that."

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poems.

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