Defrocked academics and football freaks, good ol’ boys and enticingly wicked women mingle to fine effect in Mississippian Vice’s impressively varied debut collection.
In a razor-sharp style studded with sparkling metaphors, Vice introduces a gallery of unhappy, embattled or just plain ornery southern souls. There’s the history student who finds in his overprotective father’s Russophilia both an objective correlative for his own ingrained timidity and a way to forgive and understand his dad (“Stalin”); the writer-teacher abandoned by his wife, and subject to panic attacks, whose paranoia is relieved by the druggy ministrations of a freewheeling Vicksburg beauty (“What Happens in the ’Burg, Stays in the ’Burg”); and the bereaved Greek-American mother who sublimates her grief by composing indigenous cookbooks (“Artifacts”). The author’s virtues as a regional realist are showcased in richly detailed portrayals of an aged black widower who “conjures” gardening success from the detritus of his happy family life (“Mojo Farmer”); a high-school athlete for whom Alabama football coach “Bear” Bryant’s “Spartan military discipline” is less threatening than his backbreaking everyday labors (“Report from Junction”); and a submissive retiree overmatched by his take-charge wife, her ebullient daughter and the coal-black studhorse that embodies the energies he cannot share with them (“Mule”). Even better is the sardonic title fantasy, about an automotive design engineer’s mischievous pet project; the seriocomic tale of a transplanted northerner’s flirtation with her absent husband’s golfing buddy, some draggletailed KKK troublemakers and ubiquitous lunatics escaped from the local asylum (“Tuscaloosa Knights”); and the chilling “Chickensnake,” in which a stoic farm boy apprehends how his family’s ill fortune is destroying its members, while also realizing that “he just couldn’t stop the world from eating itself.” The latter is a perfect little nightmare, worthy of Erskine Caldwell in his heyday.
Distinguished and disturbing work, from a lavishly gifted new writer.