01 Nov 2006
Determining who is, what is and where is Southern fiction is as futile and ultimately defeating effort as attempting to refight the Civil War, but it’s an acceptable point of departure to what you hope will be a more interesting discussion. Discussing the question reveals much about the reader’s bias, knowledge and prejudices. Are stories set in Florida considered Southern? If your answer is no because of all the Yankees who’ve moved down there, would you accept the Panhandle region?
This is what I was thinking reading this “New Stories from the South,” the 1998 anthology from the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Algonquin Books. Particularly Stephen Dixon’s “The Poet,” which is set in Washington, D.C. A poet working at the Library of Congress gives a young radio reporter a ride during a blizzard. The reporter tells the story of this and other encounters with the poet, and we see the poet’s responses to his praise for lending a hand. He doesn’t remember doing so, but admits that he probably did. We also see other’s reactions to this act as well, including a man who sees cynical motives behind the act.
What’s so Southern about that? Probably nothing, and that’s what is significant about this anthology. There’s a sense of freedom in these stories, a shaking off of the ghosts of Faulkner, O’Connor and Welty.
Not all of the stories suffer from geographic amnesia. Annette Sanford’s “The in the Little Hunky River” and Nancy Richard’s “The Order of Things” are deeply rooted in the traditions of Southern fiction: the strong sense of family and place skewed with a certain warpness. Richard’s story makes that plane from the first line: “The Bigler girl had known it would happen again, so she was not alarmed when she emerged from Touchet’s Grocery to find her mother had scaled the Chinese tallow tree behind the store.”
Then there are the stories about the New South, like Scott Ely’s “Talk Radio.” Luther, a Vietnam veteran hosting a conservative talk show in Charlotte, N.C., meets Thac, a North Vietnamese officer he befriended during the war. Each were radio operators, and they shared an interest in tennis and the opera.
Like the best of Southern fiction, “Talk Radio” carries with it a sense of place, but the location has shifted to Vietnam. Nearly the end, Luther dreams of playing tennis with Thac on a Saigon court,
“during one of those days of the monsoon, the warm wind steady off the sea, the clouds low and thick over the city, the air filled with a fine mist. The concrete courts are slick. The balls are heavy with water. We move carefully, as if we are playing on ice, but I know that neither of us are going to fall. We are safe.”
“New Stories from the South” captures a region shifting, drifting and breaking apart like a sheet of ice. Fragments of the old South — extended families, a reverence for the old ways and Gothic incidents — sit along the M.F.A. stories that’s as polished as a cherry ‘56 Fury to the experimental prose that shows writers willing to take chances to refresh what is alive and noteworthy about the region.