Wright offers stark stories from the contemporary Deep South in this debut collection.
A cynical used car salesman in Birmingham—“an academic of the catchpenny auto-industrial complex,” as he calls himself—gets the opportunity to move up to new Jaguars, though a mural across the street from the dealership begins to haunt his thoughts. A black anti-corruption county commissioner attempts to raise his albino autistic son in Alabama’s richest (and all-white) suburb, where he feels they are not welcome. A white boy moves with his family to an all-black town and watches his father descend into an unsettling obsession with the civil rights era. A disgraced safety engineer at a steam plant walks uninvited into a woman’s house, sits on her couch, and when she asks him what he’s doing, says, “I’m Columbus. I live here now.” In these 16 stories, Wright pokes at the still-unhealed wounds of Alabama to discover the hatred and trauma flowing beneath the surface. The census takers, bankers, bodyguards, and prison cooks that populate these pages must contend with the tortured history that has preceded them, from the legacy of slavery to the Deepwater Horizon spill’s poisoning the waters offshore. In Wright’s vision, modern Alabama hasn’t gotten any less crazy; the old madness is simply manifesting itself in new ways: “The Dirty South is a disenchanted land of guilt and black milk and terror, white bed sheets and burning crosses in the front yard, the charred wood—cut from the same ugly pines used to frame your house and church—never quite cool to the touch,” writes the narrator of one story. “I’ve taken communion, and been a cannibal.”
Wright’s prose is stylishly verbose and honest, offering descriptions that seem to have ambulated onto the page of their own accord: “When DOT took a slice out of Red Mountain for the expressway…most of downtown Birmingham self-actualized to antique ruins, reverting to a giant used-car lot, a smooth asphalted prairie where trash and news blew before the winds.” He successfully combines the anarchic nihilism of Hunter S. Thompson with the deeper, exploratory writings of William Faulkner, identifying the cancers of his chosen corner of the American South and providing not solutions so much as requiems. The author shapes observations that feel simultaneously folksy and startling; one woman observes of her neighbors: “They’re such goddamn Good Samaritans they’d show you how to load a gun if you were trying to blow your head off.” At nearly 300 pages, the book is perhaps overlong for a story collection, and a few of the weaker pieces could have been left on the editing room floor. That said, the thematic consistency is so strong that the reader leaves the book with the wondrous sense of having spent a lifetime among the crooks and malcontents of central Alabama and having come away much wiser for the experience.
A finely crafted collection that perfectly evokes a place and culture.