The familiar annual celebrates its 20th anniversary with 19 stories that pull their imaginative starter cultures from below the Mason-Dixon Line.
With an introduction by Jill McCorkle, whose account of an exchange with a Northern waiter who tells her iced tea is “out of season” is worth the price of admission, the collection contains seven must-not-miss stories, three by relative newcomers and four by seasoned pros. Stephanie Soileau’s star-turn “The Boucherie,” about a group of Cajun old-timers who conspire to hide an AWOL cow from the authorities while making a refugee family from Sudan (which they all think is in India) feel right at home, is sure to clinch her a first-book contract if she doesn’t have one already. Two other writers to watch, Ethan Hauser and Rebecca Soppe, also offer fiction that feels decidedly rooted in a 21st-century South, with, respectively, “The Charm of the Highway Median” and “The Pantyhose Man.” From the trusty Southern tale-tellers, Allan Gurganus conjures a retired librarian’s path to sexual enlightenment in “My Heart Is a Snake Farm”; Moira Crone reveals the consequences of never saying anything not nice in “Mr. Sender”; Robert Olen Butler solves one of the great riddles of our time in “Severance”; and Judy Budnitz haunts the reader with her story of a Civil War surgeon’s desperate, final act in “The Kindest Cut.” Anniversaries are helpful milestones for pausing and taking stock of traditions to ensure they’re thriving and not headed down a worn path. In that spirit, it’s important to note that several stories here, including work by Gregory Sanders, Lucinda Harrison Coffman and Janice Daugharty, are familiar as kudzu along a Georgia highway.
That said, the pleasures here outdistance the shortcomings by a country mile.