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.
It's easy for a reader to take a wrong turn as he or she approaches Stephen Ausherman's new novel, Fountains of Youth. But reading through the novel might be like returning to a small, familiar town you knew years ago—the roads and basic landmarks are the same, but there's been a lot of development and the details are all different.
The book's narrator and protagonist, Cyrus Slant, seems initially to be a character that we've met before, inhabiting a place that we've seen a few too many times in the dusty environs of so-called "southern literature." He is a case of arrested development: a young man (but not quite as young as he seems) raised without exactly knowing who his father is, whose mother died when he was still young and impressionable. He lives in and works for the Dixie Court Hotel, in "Stillwater County" in North Carolina, not far from one small town named "Odium" and another called "Hunters." Stillwater County also comes complete with a mysterious swamp, an aged black seer, a haunted house (with its own bottle tree for capturing the rambunctious ha'nts), a mysterious, rebellious vanished Native American named Quiet Bear (purportedly a Gingaskin Indian), and a wandering idiot manchild (to borrow a riff by the Coen Brothers on Faulkner in Barton Fink) who is tolerated affectionately by the community and who likes to paint everything yellow.
Put this way, every cliché in the regionalist book seems to rear its ugly head. It's only a matter of time before Otis checks himself into the jail to sleep off a drunk, before some Snopes shows up wanting to sleep with his sister (or even worse, your sister), and before long people will be digging up the yard for gold on this side of the street while Confederate ghosts thunder down the lane in a duststorm of butternut and gray.
Thankfully, however, the sum of the parts in Fountains of Youth are greatly outweighed by its whole; Ausherman makes use of the more familiar and treadworn characteristics of southern fiction largely to subvert homespun myths and to comment on the very act of myth-making. The Dixie Court Motel, for example, rather than being owned by Compsons or Snopes or characters named Big Daddy or Stella Rondo, is owed and operated by Indian immigrant Amitabh Patil, who has helped raise Cyrus alongside his daughters Mina, Arati, and Cyrus' secret love, the beautiful and absent Sonali.
Cyrus has been raised to think that his father is most likely either the famous journalist and raconteur Lester Current (a kind of self-mythologizing cross between a later day H.L. Mencken and Tom Wolfe), or just possibly the local legend, the rebellious, mysterious, and absent Quiet Bear. Obsessed with Current, Cyrus has read everything the man has ever written and even has begun composing his own brief articles in the manner of Current about his own friends, family and Stillwater County. When Current returns to Stillwater County to confront the demons of his youth and checks into the Dixie Court Motel, Cyrus, in turn, is able to confront the legend of his maybe-father in the flesh. The man, as so often seems to be the case, doesn't quite live up to the legend. When Cyrus asks him whether he'd actually hunted moose with concussion grenades and held a dying Israeli soldier in his arms, Current tells Cyrus that he has "Applied my poetic license. Took some liberties with Madam Hyperbole." When Cyrus asks how many embellishments have been made, Current first tells him, "just a few details here and there," but finally admits, "They sure add up fast over a lifetime."
Ultimately, the reader realizes that many of the novel's themes intersect in Lester Current, and that the writer is in some ways more of a symbol than a character. This is a novel about fathers: the father that Cyrus thinks either Lester or Quiet Bear would be, on the one hand, and his surrogate fathers in Patil and Moses Jefferson (the blind African American psychic) on the other. Too, this is a novel about legends and myths, and the way we use stories and folklore to create meaning and instill order on the chaos that surrounds our lives. Even as Cyrus puts to rest some of his own questions about his legacy and his past, he weaves new tales.
Ausherman takes chances in Fountains of Youth. So many novels set in the south get so mired in the swamplands of formula and familiar tropes that making use of those commonplace formulations in even postmodern, subversive ways risks snap judgments on the parts of readers wearied by the familiar. The romantic triangle between Cyrus and two of the Patil sisters seems a bit obvious although the end of the novel takes some turns that no one will see coming. And some of the articles by Current and Cyrus inserted in the text throughout the novel tend to get a little tedious and to slow the narrative's momentum. But through it all, Cyrus is an engaging, likeable, and interesting narrator, and Ausherman paints secondary characters like Patil, his daughter Mina, and Moses Jefferson in subtle shades that reflect the full range of their humanity.
Fountains of Youth by Stephen Ausherman
Livingston Press, ISBN: hardback 1-931982-55-4 ($25.00); paperback 1-931982-56-2 ($14.95)
Of all the poetic forms, the elegy can be the most stirring and profound. Whether written as a poetic lament for a friend (as John Milton did in 1637 with his pastoral elegy "Lycidas") or as a lament for all the dead (as in Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead"), a well-done elegy reaches beyond death as an abstract concept and embraces it as the very essence of what every human experiences at the end of their life.
Unfortunately, in recent decades elegies have fallen out of favor with both poets and the reading public. Perhaps this is a result of our ever-extending life spans and a youth-obsessed culture which promises that we can forstall the inevitable for another day—and if we can't do that, we can at least ignore it. This view has never set well with me. By sanitizing death and locking it away in a rarely seen closet, we are unprepared for the end when it finally comes to ourselves and those we love. This doesn't mean one should embrace death; it means that one embraces life even more when one realizes death waits for us even on the most beautiful and sunny of days.
Perhaps my feelings on death have caused me to embrace The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth-Century Elegy, edited by Lynn Strongin and published by the University of Iowa Press. A gifted stylist, Strongin's poetry and nonfiction have graced storySouth several times. With this anthology, though, Strongin has transcended everything she has accomplished as a writer. In one fell swoop she has provided proof that the elegy is not dead but instead thrives, blossoming forth from a new generation of poets.
The anthology opens with W. B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and continues through such well-know elegies as Tate's previously mentioned poem to lesser known poems like Billy Collins' masterful "The Dead." Perhaps because of the solemn, death-obsessed nature of Southern Literature, Southern writers are well represented in this anthology, with James Dickey (and his wonderful poem "Buckdancer's Choice"), R.T. Smith, G.C. Waldrep, Allen Tate, and Carolyn Maisel being just a few of the names here.
As someone who reads very few poetry anthologies each year, this is one I have found myself turning to time and again over the last two months. The poems here reassure and calm, teach and enlighten, and most of all connect us even more to life by going through the valley of death. I can not recommend this anthology enough.
There are few experiences so quintessentially American as the automobile. Yes, the world is full of cars, with the Germans and Japanese car industries continually giving Detroit a run for its money. However, after spending a number of years overseas I believe I can safely state that most of the world sees the automobile very differently than Americans do.
You see, for much of the world a car is merely a status symbol or a means of getting from point A to point B (or, of course, both). In the United States, though, the automobile is a symbol of freedom. Yes, people in America purchase cars for the same reasons of status and transportation that appeal to people in other countries. But if one digs deeper into the American car psyche, one finds a deep yearning for freedom, for the ability to pick up and leave our old lives and drive around this gigantic country of ours and never stop. Forget about the car actually taking you someplace--the more important fact is the freedom the car could one day give you.
I have been thinking about the American love of cars while reading Nathan Leslie's new short story collection Drivers. Evey story in this collection focuses on cars, either through the vehicles themselves (such as a lovely Studebaker Starliner) or through the people who drive them. I have long been a fan of Nathan's first person writing style and this collection showcases his ability to great effect. However, if this was merely another collection of short stories, I doubt it would have siezed my imagination so tightly.
Instead, Nathan has woven his characters and stories into that most American of ideals--the freedom the automobile gives us, the freedom to drive away from our lives. Nevermind that many of the characters in this collection don't embrace this freedom, or if they do embrace it they don't know what to do with the gift they've been given. Instead these characters live their lives as we all live them: day by day, accident by accident, traffic jam by traffic jam. But despite this drudgery, the potential for freedom still lurks behind each story and that is what I loved about this book. That is also, I believe, why Americans love their cars. Even if you drive a beat-up minivan who's main purpose is driving the kids to and from soccer practice, when you grip that steering wheel you can at least dream of setting off down that highway and not stopping until your old life disappears in your rearview mirror.
Anyone who's found themself gripping their steering wheel in this type of manner will enjoy Nathan Leslie's new book.
I'm no longer feeling guilty about storySouth's spring/summer 2006 issue being a bit late. My reasoning: even though the temperature outside is in the mid 90s and July sits just around the corner, the spring issue of the Oxford American just hit the stands. As a son of the South, I'm certain that both of these late events result from the sluggishness of high temperatures and long, editorial fishing trips to cool, shady riverbanks.
That said, good things come to those who wait and the Oxford American's new issue if proof of this. The issue is titled "Best of the South." However, instead of mimicking the endless parade of "best of..." newspaper articles and books (featuring, for example, a list of the best barbecue places in the South), the editors of the OA have collected a series of odes to Southern cultural and physical landmarks.
One example of these odes is "An Ode to the Moon Winx Lodge Sign" by Michael Martone. This well written essay examines the history of a neon sign in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as the sign's motel descends from a classy place to stay to an hourly rental spot to a flop house. Other essays in the issue explore such topics as odes to chicken feet, Memphis nights, and, in what must be one of my favorite titles, "An Ode to a Pretty Ugly Truck."
In recent decades the "ode" has fallen out of favor with many writers, so I am glad to see the OA bringing back this worthy part of our literary heritage. Check out the new issue of OA here.
As readers of W.A. Bilen's wonderful essay "Hiding Harper Lee" already know, the greatest living enigma in Southern Literature is Harper Lee, author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
While I agree with Bilen's point that people should respect Harper Lee's desire to have a normal life and to avoid the glitz and fanfare that have arisen around her only novel, I also understand that there are many people who desire to learn more about the author of what one of the top novels of the 20th century. For these people I suggest they check out Mockingbird : A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. Shield's book examines Lee's life and her most famous book and puts to rest a famous rumor (that Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird) while also pointing out that Lee had a much larger role in the creation of Capote's classic In Cold Blood than many people thought.