Literate, deftly constructed stories of backwoods Alabama.
It wouldn’t be Southern fiction without a nod to Faulkner, and Barton gets a hint in early: He sets a hayrick on fire, synecdoche for a barn, and lets the smoke linger in the swampy air. Then there’s the land, always a central character in southerly writing: pastures, dark soil, brooding forest, river—the Tennahpush, in this case, as real and as not-real as Yoknapatawpha County. But Barton’s quiet homage and adherence to convention are just that; he’s an original. The opening story finds a folk artist on the point of giving it all up even as the young woman who helps out around the place looks hard at a dreary future. “You haven’t made anything new in a good while, Mr. Hutchins,” she says, yearning for something different from insulin shots, pill bottles and shot glasses. The art that she likes, she declares, involves things that will take a person away from all this; in a nice bit of symmetry, the closing words of the collection also point to the desire to leave a place that holds people fast. Barton’s best moments join human generations to that land in different times: Here a slave, hauntingly speaking of plantation violence, suddenly sees the possibility of an escape seemingly not available to most mortals, and there a modern countryman grapples not just with “crackheads and meth freaks” and other denizens of the bottomlands, but also the possibility of flying saucers. Barton is not a funny writer as such, but there is some sly humor at play, too, as when that flying saucer fellow allows that his daughter might just be a lesbian. “Lois says I make it sound like Margaret’s a monster when I say that. Like I might as well go around telling people that she turned into a werewolf, when I’m really the one who turned into a monster, according to Lois.”
Barton is generous and sympathetic toward his characters, no matter how much of a handful they are. A pleasing collection, humane and well-written.