Kentucky gets dystopian—or just plain weird—in this debut collection of stories merging realism and science fiction.
The Border State, the novella anchoring Rowe’s debut, has an enduring theme: siblings searching for lost parents. But the Kentucky where the twin brother and sister are searching is less familiar, and less gentle, than the stereotypes of thoroughbreds and endless bluegrass. The state has been closed off from its neighbors after a conflagration with federal authorities, and telephones and rivers possess sentient and occasionally malicious powers. The twins’ search takes the form of a Tour de France–style bicycle race, which gives the story constant movement as well as some well-turned glimpses of the landscape. Many of the remaining stories share the Kentucky setting as well as details about its curious reshaping. “Nowhere Fast,” for instance, features the surprising arrival of a gas-burning car (“forbidden technology”), opening a discussion about society’s greed for rushing. (“It takes as long to get somewhere as it should take...expedience leads to war and flood.”) In “The Contrary Gardener,” the sharpest story in the collection, a young woman becomes alert to political revolution and the dangers of technology (as with the mechanized bus driver, which seems to have developed a conscience) amid the Kentucky Derby, one of the last bastions of the state’s old culture. And “The Unveiling” is a thoughtful allegory on the intersection of political resistance and what we literally put on a pedestal. Rowe’s stories are rooted in Kentucky, but he’s also often inventing a society out of whole cloth, and the short story form is sometimes an uncomfortable place for such aggressive worldbuilding; “The Voluntary State,” for instance, introduces so many new creatures and histories that it becomes clotted with explication instead of action. Mostly, though, Rowe's stories are effective and relaxed.
A clutch of complex, persuasive visions of an alternative South.