Miami Herald // New Stories from the South 2010

Here’s a review I started writing while living in Louisiana and finished after settling in to Philadelphia.

NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH 2010: The Year’s Best. Edited by Amy Hempel. Algonquin. 400 pages. $14.95 in paper.

The 2010 edition of New Stories from the South represents the 25th anniversary of the series. The guest editor this time, fiction writer Amy Hempel, has chosen these tales from such impressive but lesser-known literary magazines as Appalachian Heritage and Natural Bridge as well as the stalwarts of contemporary literature (The New Yorker, Tin House and The Paris Review).

Enlisting Hempel as the editor was a bold decision. She is, after all, a Yankee whose own admirable fiction has little that’s Southern about it. Her perspective as an outsider might just explain why this collection holds together so neatly. A few petty, personal gripes aside, her selections live up to what readers have come to expect from Southern literature.

The best story here is The Ascent by Ron Rash. In it, a young boy named Jared spends his days wandering through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, pretending to fight off bears with his pocketknife and letting his imagination run wild while his deadbeat parents sit at home getting stoned. When he finds the remains of a recent, otherwise undiscovered plane crash, he takes a diamond ring from a dead passenger and plans to give it to a girl on the playground, but his father sells it to fund a weekend-long bender. The mangled plane provides a mental escape from his family, and Jared tries to fix the engine so it can take off again. It’s a story designed to break your heart, and with it Rash joins the ranks of such authors as William Gay and Charles Portis, whose work defines contemporary Southern letters.

Almost as impressive is Drive by Aaron Gwyn, which features a young couple, Jill and Jimmy, trying to decide if they want to commit to each other and have children or go their separate ways. That is, until Jimmy gets a bad idea while driving: “It was like his hands belonged to someone else. They gripped the wheel at ten and two, and he watched them tighten and the knuckles go white, and then he watched, as if on a monitor, then steer the car into the oncoming lane.” Their suicidal games of high-speed chicken on the open road do wonders for their sex life. And of course there’s a gun in the glove box. In some respects the story is just as silly as the premise would lead you to believe, but it’s also carefully constructed and nuanced.

The Green Belt by Emily Quinlin serves up familial tragedy, violence and strange humor in a way that would have made Flannery O’Connor proud. I look forward to reading more of her work. Other highlights include Retreat by Wells Tower, Arsonists by Ann Pancake, Nightblooming by Kenneth Calhoun, and Rick Bass’ Fish Story, a mesmerizing tale about a Texas boy charged with keeping an 86-pound catfish alive on dry land. The best line in the entire book comes in another fishing story, Eraser by Ben Shroud: “Maybe I should be staring at nutrias after all.”

One problem with New Stories from the South is Hempel’s baffling introduction, which uses a lot of catchy phrases to say little. “The choices I made,” she writes, “can be further understood this way: I don’t have much interest in causality in fiction, but I do want to see accountability.” In the same paragraph, she adds, “I want effects, not just events.” I’m unable to reconcile those competing aesthetic impulses.

Nevertheless, her I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it approach has paid off big time. The collection grants a nice overview of our nation’s most fertile breeding ground for great short stories. The traditional critique of Southern literature, of course, is that it’s an exclusive club for elderly white men with questionable sartorial tastes. I wish collections like this one would do a bit more to celebrate the ethnic and cultural and aesthetic diversity of life below the Mason-Dixon line. That’s a pretty big problem here. Hopefully this series will dedicate itself to introducing the new generation of writers — Tayari Jones and Blake Butler, Barb Johnson and Ravi Howard — who are already redefining Southern literature and, by extension, the South itself.