September 2007

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

fiction

New Stories from the South: 2007 -- The Year's Best edited by Edward P. Jones

As a northerner who, within one month’s time, will find himself scattered south of the Mason-Dixie line, I delved into New Stories of the South: 2007 -- The Year’s Best, edited by Edward P. Jones, with the hope of finding clues to this foreign territory. What does it mean to be southern? Of what does southern literature consist? In George Singleton’s “Which Rocks We Choose,” his main character receives a three volume set entitled The South: What Happened, How, When and Why. Singleton’s character opens the third volume to read the title of chapter one: “BBQ, Ticks, Cottonmouths, and Moonshine.”

While these collected stories do, in fact, host a staggering amount of food, insects, snakes and alcoholic beverages, they are not so cleanly categorized as Singleton alludes. This uncleanliness is a motif present in the majority of these stories; a kind of grit that we in the north, much like hominy and pig’s feet, do not yet have the stomach for.

Jones’s editorial decisions allow for as eclectic an assortment as one might expect from a collection centered on southern literature. Jones notes that there is “meandering” within a few of his selections, though he defends it. Southerners “might seem to take the long way to get from A to Z… But each place along the way is, in the end, crucial to the story.”

In the opening story, Rick Bass’s “Goats,” two naïve teenagers buy cattle and make unsuccessful attempts at keeping them in shoddily constructed fences. After an encounter with a calf seller they name Goat Man (along with his daughter, Goat Girl), the boys uncover lessons about boundaries which their shoddy fences could not provide. A story of those who awaken, those who reawaken, and those who never stir at all, Bass’s piece is the gem of the collection, and an obvious choice to lead.

James Lee Burke’s “A Season of Regret” tells of Albert Hollister, a retired creative writing teacher who, when standing up for a woman he does not know, finds himself embroiled in a grudge between himself and three leather-clad motorcycle men. Helpless to find any way within the law to defend himself from their attacks, he proves his potency by wielding a shotgun, taking aim, and waiting to pull the trigger. In the final pages, Hollister relearns a lesson from his writing days: nature’s course is far more effective than human intervention.

Holly Goddard Jones, in “Life Expectancy,” explores the power dynamic between basketball coach and player as Theo Burke attempts to manage an affair with his star athlete. When the girl becomes pregnant, Theo not only faces the cruelties of the world from within his betrayed family, but also another kind of betrayal -- the girl kissing her male classmates in a way he will never again be kissed.

Finally, R.T. Smith’s “Story” is the peculiar account of an enfeebled cancer survivor who finds a robber in his house and becomes helpful to the point of accomplice. Not only does he explain where to find the most valuable goods, he even shows the intruder to the liquor cabinet and explains what he enjoys most. At its climax, the cancer survivor begs a glass of water from the robber, and the robber, in equally helpful fashion, grants him the request. A story of submission and what’s worth fighting for, Smith’s “Story” employs the robbery as an invading cancer of which the protagonist has already once endured.

As is true of all anthologies, the reader finds himself inundated with a good thing. Good things, however, are best in small doses, not in 400 pages. There are stories littered among the center and end of the collection which meander more than the reader has the patience to make allowances for. A strong, vital, and important collection, its only flaw is the same as the shortcoming of a southern cooked meal; in its abundance -- no matter how hungry one is, there’s always too much food on the table.

New Stories from the South: 2007 -- The Year's Best edited by Edward P. Jones
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1565125568
384 Pages