The annual anthology celebrates a quarter-century with a stellar selection.
Though the criteria for inclusion mystifies, the results should satisfy any reader with an affinity for short fiction. Some of the better stories, including the closing "Retreat" by Wells Tower, don't take place in the South, while the style and subject of others don't reflect any sort of regionalism. Even editor Hempel has no discernible ties to the South, though she has distinguished herself as a master of the story form. However they're otherwise categorized, masterful stories abound here, many of them spare, first-person narratives capable of delivering a jolt to the reader's nervous system. The 25 stories range from the hard-boiled "Drive" by Aaron Gwyn, in which a dangerous desperation reignites a faltering romance, to the complications of morality, establishment of value and the ravages of time in "Fish Story" by Rick Bass. Following each story is an explanation by the author of the piece's genesis and development (which, in the case of Padgett Powell, is both longer and more compelling than his one-paragraph "Cry for Help from France"). Among the better-established Southern authors, there is characteristically compelling work—from Tim Gautreaux, Dorothy Allison and Ron Rash, though the delight of the anthology lies in the discoveries it affords (like Megan Mayhew Bergman's elliptically terse "The Cow That Milked Herself"; Ann Pancake's soul-shattering "Arsonists"; and Laura Lee Smith's Swamp Gothic "This Trembling Earth").
These stories are less reflective of the state of Southern fiction than the state of the contemporary short story. "Though one's sense of geography is keen," writes Hempel, "it's hard to feel that there is much that separates us after reading the stories collected here."