Thematic imbalance and wan lyricism figure rather too prominently in this 24th installment of the annual series.
It’s understandable that the chaos wreaked by Hurricane Katrina continues to loom, like a buzzard hungrily circling overhead, in the contemporary Southern imagination. Nevertheless, with one exception, this volume’s several Katrina-inflected stories tell us little not already eloquently presented in news coverage and analysis of that horror. The exception is Katherine Karlin’s gritty “Muscle Memory,” in which a bereaved adult daughter honors her late father and the storm’s victims by learning her daddy’s signature skill—welding. This fine story’s detailed attention to the earthy business of living contrasts powerfully with too many flat, clichéd depictions of sexual experimentation, fraying relationships and failed marriages. That said, a generous amount of this volume’s contents is very much worth reading. Veteran authors Elizabeth Spencer and Kelly Cherry deftly identify the fallout from fallible parents’ misadventures (in “Banger Finds Out” and “Sightings,” respectively). The classic Southern emphasis on clannishness and its discontents is freshly portrayed in Michael Knight’s envisioning of a betrayed husband’s surprising encounter with his wife’s lover (“Grand Old Party”); Stephanie Powell Watt’s slyly understated account of an independent “maiden” aunt’s various effects on her semi-scandalized relations (“Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards”); and Cary Holladay’s lovely “Horse People,” which channels both Eudora Welty and Harper Lee to tell the life story of a gentle, reflective protagonist influenced in more ways than he can count by the character of his compassionate father, a respected Virginia judge. Best of all are Pinckney Benedict’s “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” about an American fighter pilot in Vietnam accidentally transformed from predator into “prey,” and Clinton J. Stewart’s “Bird Dog,” which illuminates with precise prose and savage irony the consequences of a well-meaning father’s attempt to make “a man” of his sensitive, musically gifted son.
Just uneven enough to make seeking out its several gems an entertaining and rewarding reading experience.