Culled from successive annual collections of New Stories from the South, these strong selections by novelist Anne Tyler stretch from 1996 to 2005.
The winners here have jumped through several editorial hoops, from initial publication in literary journals like the New Yorker and Ploughshares, to further selection as the best Southern fiction—not an easy quality to define, admits keen-witted, no-nonsense Tyler in her introduction. Though many of the stories will be familiar to readers, they are no less pleasing. Lee Smith’s masterly “The Happy Memories Club” (from the Atlantic Monthly), about a feisty nursing-home inmate determined to resist the censorship of her lifetime of memories, is one of several tales tackling head-on the sad, nearly squalid endings of cherished relatives. Some of these elders carry with them the edged legacy of racism and Confederate honor. Pam Durban’s “Gravity” treats a mother’s embarrassing, repetitive stories of her longtime black servant; Mamie has been dead for 14 years but still provides a beacon for the confused Charleston lady. In Gregory Sanders’s “Good Witch, Bad Witch,” a Houston woman on her last legs redeems herself of “compartmentalized” racism by bestowing a final largesse on the “nigra man” who takes care of her lawn. Lucia Nevai’s “Faith Healer” shows Northerners getting a grand Southern reception when a divorced couple seeking a Tennessee faith healer arrive at Willie Mae’s house in Pikeville—and the Pittsburgh husband’s own racist views are sorely tested. Other outsiders, a family of Sudanese in Stephanie Soileau’s “The Boucherie,” share a cultural moment with their Louisiana neighbors when a wayward cow has to be butchered, under Muslim law. There’s also plenty of hardy, run-on, vernacular storytelling, as in Clyde Edgerton’s “Debra’s Flap and Snap” and Max Steele’s hilarious, hair-raising tale of unspeakable family secrets, “The Unripe Heart.”
An unblinking look at regional ills and richness that suffers from a dearth of African-American voices.