Review of Spit Baths by Greg Downs
We're particularly proud here at storySouth to review Greg Downs' book Spit Baths, the 2006 winner of the University of Georgia Press Flannery O' Connor Award for Short Fiction, since two of the stories included in the collection have been published by us ("Indoor Plumbing" in our last issue and "Black Pork" in this one). Spit Baths offers a multifaceted and exquisite rendering of the modern (and postmodern) south, the stories' realism and detail no less effective for their imaginative, poetic depictions.
Downs has one of those extraordinarily diverse backgrounds listed on his book jacket that those of us who have led more mundane lives envy. Basketball coach, investigative journalist, karaoke performer, history professor. His varied interests are fully displayed in Spit Baths. First story collections are all too often monochromatic in terms of voice, tone, themes, and characters. Often we readers don't really mind this so much (take, for example, Raymond Carver, on the one extreme, and George Singleton or Flannery O'Connor on the other), but it can get redundant after a while. Spit Baths manages to capture the richly changing tapestry that makes up the modern southern experience.
No writer since Faulkner—hell, since Twain, at least, and maybe since Frederick Douglass—has written convincingly about the south without tackling race. Too often the result in latter-day southern letters is a bad pastiche of the Atticus Finch stereotype—the one lone, noble voice of progressive views in the face of a relentless bigoted ideology—or we see a photo negative of this stereotype in an updated use of the "tragic mulatto" stock character. Some of the stories in Spit Baths, however, bring a subtle and nuanced view to the race questions in the south. We see the slow, cancerous growth of prejudice in the aptly and metaphorically named "Indoor Plumbing" (previously published by storySouth) which is counterbalanced with "Black Pork," published in this issue, which Publisher's Weekly refers to as a "simultaneously excruciating and deeply insightful commentary" about race.
Downs doesn't limit himself to one theme; some of the more successful stories in the collection deal with the frail and tenuous webs men and women spin between each other in both the waxing and waning days of romantic relationships. "A Comparative History of Nashville Love Affairs" describes how a husband and father weighs the progress of his own marriage through watching the dissolving relationship of his neighbors; "Hope Chests" tells the story of a tough young woman who marries her teacher in the hope that he'll challenge her, help her grow, and develop with her; instead, her indomitable will proves more than he can handle. One of the most entertaining stories in the book, "Freedom Ride" is about a young teacher who is chaperoning fifty-five seventh graders on a field trip to a civil rights amusement park (to quote Dave Berry: I promise I am not making this up); one of his fellow teachers and chaperones is his reluctant lover. The field trip devolves into chaos, with the students fighting each other over reenacted lunch counter boycotts and sit-ins, boats spinning out of control in some kind of Pirates of the Caribbean ride through civil rights history, and talking mannequins matched with the wrong voice tapes. Somehow, the narrator's attempts to help the hapless tour guide (on what must be the worst museum to the Civil Rights era ever created) and his reluctant bonding with one of his young charges helps him gain perspective on his own budding romance.
The other element that Downs brings to the table of short fiction, however, is that thing which is so unteachable in MFA programs and so hard to discuss in fiction workshops—a vital and inventive imagination. In a few stories he seems to owe more of a debt to writers like Ron Carlson and Frederick Barthelme than he does to such southern realists as Richard Ford (yeah, Richard, we know you don't like to be called a "southern writer," but hey, you're from Mississippi). For example, "Ain't I a King, Too?" is the story of a man whose marriage and life are falling apart who finds himself in Louisiana the day after Huey Long's assassination in 1935; more to the point, he finds himself meeting some people at a filling station who seemingly take him for Long.
"Field Trip" does what I thought was impossible to do, which is to write an entertaining and interesting story about a dream. "Snack Cakes" is about a young man, just out of the eleventh grade, who is run out of his house when his mother finds he's been having sex with his girlfriend. In need of help, he seeks out his grandfather, who has just been kicked out of the house himself by his sixth wife. Together, the two visit each of his grandfather's living former wives, depositing boxes of the old man's mementos, the collected talismans of a life not so well lived. "I know you're in trouble," his grandfather tells him. "Probably I'm supposed to tell you to say you're sorry or something. Probably that's why your mother let you come. But, Charlie, nobody ever told me anything that meant anything to me. Except get out. . . . Words don't mean very much, Charlie. Or they mean something that's different than what they say. Do you know that?"
In Spit Baths, Downs manages to be part of the vital current of southern literary tradition and absolutely free from its restrictive ties. At a time when short story collections seem to be an endangered species (more to come on this), you have to seek out the good ones and treasure them when you find them. Buy this book. Hold onto it, loan it out, force it on friends. You'll be glad you did.
Spit Baths, by Greg Downs. University of Georgia Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-8203-2846-4.