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Oxford American gets a chance to keep on shining

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Great news for fans of Oxford American, which rightly calls itself the Southern magazine of good writing: A new financial arrangement apparently will ensure its continued publication.

The Associated Press last week reported that editor Mark Smirnoff will move its offices from Oxford, Miss., to Little Rock, Ark., and that the publication likely will have a new owner.

John Grisham, whose books routinely top best-seller lists, had floated the magazine financially since 1994 but had said OA needed to break even or cease to be.

Smirnoff revealed few details of the new arrangement but said he and Grisham will be part owners along with a backer from Little Rock. He expects to continue as editor.

Russ McDonough, chief executive of the interior decorating magazine At Home in Arkansas, reportedly will head operations in Little Rock. McDonough told the Oxford (Miss.) Eagle that OA will relaunch with a music issue this fall, publish six times in 2003 and become monthly by 2004. Its last offering was its winter issue, devoted to Southern movies.

Before those developments occurred, I had planned to write about a new story collection, Best of the Oxford American, edited by Smirnoff with a foreword by Rick Bragg (Hill Street Press, $16.95, 310 pp). The magazine has been around for a decade and always has been strapped for cash. In every issue it has offered work that has stirred "tinglings in (the) mind," as Smirnoff writes in the introduction.

Whether you knew about it at the beginning or discovered it late (the music issues, complete with CDs, always flew off the shelves), the magazine offers an inspiring assortment of journalism, poetry, fiction, photography and opinion from some of the best writers in the South, and yes, in the United States: Rick Bass, William Gay, Barry Hannah, Zorah Neale Hurston and Walker Percy are but a few.

I had planned to say that I was grateful for the publication of this collection as a keepsake from a beloved, and much-missed, magazine. To borrow from Mark Twain, the reports of its death apparently have been exaggerated. In my book, that's cause for rejoicing.

MERCURY by Cary Holladay (Shaye Areheart Books, $22, 309 pp)

I was in elementary school during duck-and-cover days. We were terrified of the Soviets and of nuclear bombs, but we were oblivious to other dangers. Some kid dropped a glass thermometer on the floor one day, and it shattered. As tiny silver globules rolled about on the schoolhouse floor, another kid started to chase after them with a dime: When it touched the mercury, the coin seemed to absorb it and then to shine more brightly than it had before, as if it had been glazed. Later, I remember, it turned black and dull.

These days, such an incident would bring hazardous materials experts to investigate. Mercury is as poisonous as it is beautiful, a fact too late discovered by three Arkansas teens who break into an old neon factory, discover vats filled with the liquid silver, paint themselves with it and smoke cigarettes dipped in the stuff.

Katelynn, the protagonist in Cary Holladay's first novel, languishes for months in her lakeside home as she tries to recover from the effects of the toxic element. Much of her entertainment is looking for the duck boat tours along Hawk Lake, in which sightseers aboard an amphibious vehicle like the ones in downtown St. Petersburg take leisurely journeys along the waterfront.

One day she watches as the Arkansas Belle sinks. Some of its passengers are lost in the water, some rescued; its captain, Louisa, survives.

In the weeks and months afterward, she turns to Katelynn in hopes that the young woman who witnessed the tragedy can supply some reasons for it. Their friendship deepens and becomes almost a character in the book itself.

Mercury is suspenseful, with an intensity almost as luminous as the quicksilver from which it takes its name.

THE CABAL AND OTHER STORIES by Ellen Gilchrist (Back Bay Books, $13.95, 276 pp)

This is exactly the kind of collection I love to read in summer, when it's almost too hot to breathe. It's lightweight enough not to be a burden on a beach towel or chaise longue, especially if one is inclined to doze. It's funny _ The Cabal, the novella from which it takes its title, is hilarious. It's wonderful storytelling that doesn't make you feel cheap for having indulged in it.

Plus, Gilchrist's stories are set in the present, which makes them all the more resonant and relevant. She's prolific: Another volume of her stories _ I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with my Daddy _ is due out in September.

But that is two months away. Today, this short novel and the five tales after it are merry entertainment, a treat for even short attention spans.

Mary Jane Park is a Times staff writer.