BEST OF THE SOUTH
Selected and Introduced by Anne Tyler
Algonquin Books, $15.95
Reviewed by Tim Warren
Debating the question of whether there is a present-day "Southern" literature could bring on a fistfight _ a splendid rhetorical one, anyway _ in nearly every one of the region's college English departments. Novelist Anne Tyler, born and raised in North Carolina and currently residing in that Southern (in spirit) city of Baltimore, considered the question in compiling this "greatest hits" collection of short stories drawn from the past 10 volumes of New Stories From the South.
While Tyler may not have settled this question for all time _ perhaps it's too delicious an issue to resolve _ there's no debating that she has picked a stellar group of stories to represent the best that have appeared in this annual anthology. There isn't an outright disappointment in the group, and only a few of the 20 stories have what I consider serious flaws. Mostly, this volume features exquisite stories _ whether "Southern" or not.
Determining what is "Southern" in fiction is an elusive task. Need the writer be Southern? And what about a sense of place? Certainly the latter is important in Southern literature, but it is in other regional fiction as well. I have in my collection of Western literature four books with the word "sky" in the titles, which suggests a similar preoccupation.
In her succinct introduction, Tyler settles on three characteristics of Southern writing. She lists them as the region's accent, which "sets up a kind of music that makes most snatches of dialogue as seductively reproducible as jump-rope rhymes;" its approach toward narrative (which "affects the path and pace of the plot") and, finally, "the Southern sense of belonging to a group _ the feeling, often, that it's "we' telling the story rather than "I.' "
These elastic criteria allow for the inclusion of some very different stories. Rick Bass' much anthologized "The Watch," about the disappearance of an old farmer into the wilds of central Mississippi, probably comes closest to the legacy of Faulkner: brooding, Gothic and almost grotesque, with, as Tyler describes it, "it's swampy, steamy setting so intrinsic to the plot." Bass does a terrific job drawing the characters of the farmer and his timid, equally reclusive son, but another major character, a young cyclist who befriends Hollingsworth, the son, is distinctly unconvincing.
Although Tyler selected works by such contemporary Southern stalwarts as Lee Smith ("Intensive Care"), Barry Hannah ("Nicodemus Bluff") and Lewis Nordan ("A Hank of Hair, A Piece of Bone"), she passed over stories by such writers as Peter Taylor, Wendell Berry and Reynolds Price. In other words, she wasn't interested in "rounding up the usual suspects," and this collection benefits from the decision.
Thus, there is the inclusion of Tony Earley's "Charlotte," a marvelous depiction of that city as it sheds its roots in becoming part of the New South. Now the city has its own National Basketball Association team and legions of new transplants who crave the homogeneity of malls and singles bars with phony Irish names. But, as the unnamed narrator suggests, a sense of rootedness has been lost through the newfound emphasis on money and show, and Earley artfully (and delightfully) illustrates this through the demise of professional wrestling in the city.
A sense of place is one element of Southern fiction; the idea of family is another. Several of the stories here deal with that theme. Families come together and fall apart, sometimes in an inexorable cycle. Madison Smartt Bell's "Customs of the Country" and Mary Hood's "After Moore" both depict what are now termed abusive domestic relationships. The endings are very different, but beautifully resolved.
You won't find fiction more moving than Smith's "Intensive Care." At the onset, the story appears to be one of those chatty Southern yarns about a wayward husband who abandons his wife and family for the town hussy, with all the county clucking their disapproval while reporting eagerly every morsel of gossip. But Smith delicately, subtly transforms it into a portrait of a man's devotion to his cancer-ridden new wife. Infidelity, or simple and pure love?
Another long-time staple of Southern writing, the preoccupation with race, isn't as evident in the collection, but still present in such stories as Reginald McKnight's "The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas," about the different approaches to racism that black students take in an overwhelmingly white high school in Waco, Texas, in the 1960s. And I loved Melanie Sumner's superb "My Other Life," in which a Peace Corps worker's Tennessee parents come face to face with her Senegalese fiance.
What this volume suggests is that while the rules of Southern literature may be changing, that is not altogether a bad thing _ we certainly don't need any more third-rate imitations of Faulkner. After all, the region itself isn't what it used to be, and neither should its writing.
Tim Warren is a writer who lives in Silver Spring, Md.