Stories tell of South's dark corners

January 18, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

Twenty-three-year-old Belinda Bedlow is dying of cancer. She makes a list of things she wants to do before she dies. "Pretending The Bed Was A Raft" by Nanci Kincaid describes what happens as Belinda carries out that list.

Ms. Kincaid's tale is one of the deeply moving stories in the ninth annual edition of "New Stories From The South: The Year's Best, 1994." These 16 stories, as editor Shannon Ravenel explains, take us deep into the psyche -- giving "the news names and faces -- and souls." With each story, Ms. Ravenel includes a brief biography of the author and an author's statement.

Most of these authors are familiar: Reynolds Price, Richard Bausch, Tony Earley, to mention a few. Many are graduates of university writing programs and teach in them. Frederick Barthelme, here with "Retreat," graduated from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and directs the creative writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction records life in the suburban New South.

Nancy Krusoe, a graduate creative writing student, is the least-known author in the collection. Her story, "Landscape And Dream," is an experimental one, written for a class. The story -- womanhood as seen from a farm girl's point of view -- is interesting, but difficult to connect with.

Leon Rooke's story, "The Heart Must From Its Breaking," is also an experimental story, but it's more resonant than Ms. Krusoe's. Told from several points of view, it describes two children being abducted -- evoking fear, beauty and poetry. "If one grew up in the rural South," Mr. Rooke says, "one is awash in such stories."

This story took shape, he adds, only after he cut several thousand words from it. Other authors discuss their revisions as well. John Sayles writes that his story, "Peeling," was originally several scenes in the film script of the movie "Passionfish." Several authors ascribe their stories to an inner voice. "It's always a voice inside my head that starts my stories," Barry Hannah explains. "When the voice feels finished, the story is over."

Most of these stories are set in the South -- usually the rural South. Ethan Canin's story takes place in St. Benedict's School in "the bucolic, equine expanse of rural Virginia, nearer in spirit to the Carolinas than to Maryland." Robert Love Taylor's protagonist lives in Oklahoma City: "The whirring cicadas might have been the rustling wings of angels -- I did not stop to think whether fallen or not." Barry Hannah describes a deer camp in Arkansas: "Why do people live here at all, I ask. They must know this is a filthy, wrong, haunted place. . . . The red dirt is hopeless."

"Dark Corner" by Robert Morgan also occurs in a "haunted" place: "Finally the road went into a deep holler. There wasn't any more hills, and it seemed the tracks disappeared into the side of the mountain. 'This is Chestnut Springs,' said Mama. . . . What she meant was . . . we didn't want to be caught in Dark Corner after dark. 'Ain't nobody safe after dark.' "

There are a few light-hearted stories, such as George Singleton's "Outlaw Head and Tail," Pamela Erbe's "Sweet Tooth" and Richard Bausch's "Aren't You Happy For Me?" But even these have a dark side. For example, in Mr. Bausch's story, Ballinger, a 44-year-old father, learns that his daughter, Melanie, 23, is pregnant with plans to marry her former English professor who, at 63, is the father of her expected child.

Ballinger argues against the marriage. Melanie insists that she will marry whom she wants. The situation seems humorous and is, until readers learn that Ballinger wants to tell his daughter that he and her mother are separating.

Many of the stories look at the way serious illness, death or some form of abandonment affect family relationships. The strongest is "Deeds of Light" by Reynolds Price, author of numerous well-received books, including "A Whole New Life," his recently published memoir.

"Deeds of Light" is told as a flashback. The plot describes the complicated love a 14-year-old boy feels for a soldier who reminds him of his deceased father. One night, the boy sees the soldier posing naked in front of a mirror. He reflects on the incident, many years later.

His thoughts -- like those found in the best of this collection -- aren't afraid to go deep: "The truest poets fail in the try to convey any part of the simple flesh that makes our first and final claim on the world's love and pity, its craving and rage, because no words can set such a gift before the reader, clean of shame or lure and threat. I looked for a minute at skin and hair and nails. . . . I thought a single furious thing, Don't let this end. Let it teach me everything I need."

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.


Title: "New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 1994"

Editor: Shannon Ravenel

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Length, price: $10.95, 354 pages

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