The spirit of play is at work in this lively latest crop of Southern stories gamely chosen by fiction-writer Gurganus (The Practical Heart, 2001, etc.), whose own work has appeared in the series.
Skillful vernacular storytelling and writing with heart mark many of these selections, such as R.T. Smith’s “Tastes Like Chicken,” which imagines the entrancing, albeit lonely livelihood of a snake-catcher whose wife eventually leaves him for a larger (and less menacing) life. Nanci Kincaid’s “The Currency of Love” depicts beautifully a prickly relationship between a mother hospitalized for a breast biopsy and her divorced daughter, while Daniel Wallace’s “Justice” hilariously evokes the biblical sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham in a story about a father’s decision to kill his son for taking the last tissue in the box. Two stories about dogs prove surprisingly moving: Wendell Berry’s “Mike” describes the transcendent convergence of a farmer, his land and his dog; and Mary Helen Stefaniak’s “You Love That Dog” tracks a troubled marriage through the husband’s decision to shoot his beloved dog because he keeps running away. Keith Lee Morris’s unusual “Tired Heart” is an elegiac sojourn from South Carolina to Puget Sound in the voice of a young married man hired to transport parcels for an anonymous, increasingly exacting employer. J.D. Chapman’s “Amanuensis” touchingly renders the inner life of a tubercular war vet in 1917 moved to a hospital in North Carolina, and Cary Holladay’s “The Burning” envisions the horrific fate of an 18th-century Virginia slave burned at the stake for the murder of her master. Gurganus maintains a buoyant mix of gravitas and levity, and in his tongue-in-cheek introduction, lists the kinds of stories with stock “Southerly” ingredients that he has spared the reader, i.e., those with arbitrary phonetic spelling, village interaction, impending gun violence, pan-generational sex, “plus a traffic-pile-up run-on-sentence construction lacking any Faulknerian suspension-bridge engineering.”
Altogether a delight to savor.