For the 15th anniversary of New Stories from the South, Ravenel stirs up a real gumbo of southern writing: authors of all ages—some first-timers, some long familiar to fans of this essential series.
Ravenel picks from magazines big (The New Yorker) and minuscule (Yemassee) but shows a noticeable bias for writers and writing from The Oxford American, the slick voice of the South that deserves a wider hearing. Ellen Douglas’s expendable preface (a patchwork of quotations) little prepares you for the variety and complexity demonstrated throughout. An homage to Flannery O’Connor (almost de rigueur for the series) is followed by the first published story of Thomas McNeely, a surefire talent who penetrates the sad and pathetic mind of a mentally disturbed killer. The same fierce imagination burns in newcomer D. Winston Brown, whose tale of street violence captures the generational discord among some southern blacks. Tim Gautreaux dishes out a somewhat formulaic tale of a blue-collar young man who can’t quite connect with a woman he picks up hitchhiking, a self-described “handicapped black lesbian” professor of women’s studies. Robert Olen Butler’s “Heavy Metal” seems equally predictable: a girl who grows up in a fundamentalist family begins to find her “own personal Jesus” in body piercing. The romantic stories play with class and gender: a young gay photographer, who thinks he channels electricity, falls for a straight and not-very-good-looking older colleague (“Mr. Puniverse”); a sexy young girl works at her father’s cardboard plant, and seduces a worker as part of her adventure in slumming (“Good-Hearted Woman”); and in Romulus Linney’s Appalachian folk tale, a young woman (“The Widow”) finds her new mate with some clever conjuring. One particularly amateurish piece—a bit of self-consciousness about an MFA program—seems hopelessly out of place here, and has no apparent southern connection.
Hardly flawless, but, like its past numbers, a showcase of new talent that shores up some developing careers, and pays homage to the wonder that is southern fiction.