According to the introduction by PEN/Faulkner finalist Packer (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, 2003), these 20 stories from American magazines represent “southerners” rather than “Southerners,” the dividing line between realism and (mythic) stereotype.
Several stories straddle that line. R.T. Smith titles his lyrical but familiar anti-war Civil War story with an iconic Southernism, “Wretch Like Me.” The title of Clyde Edgerton’s “The Great Speckled Bird” is also blatantly iconic, and Edgerton acknowledges in his afterword—each writer describes his or her story’s origins—that his tale, about a thief who takes a Bible salesman as his assistant in crime, is a purposeful tribute to Flannery O’Connor; alas, O’Connor did O’Connor better. The more successful stories are firmly contemporary. In many of the best, young protagonists struggle with the kind of troubled families found everywhere. The opener, Holly Goddard Jones’s beautifully crafted “Theory of Reality,” delves into a young girl’s shifting awareness of sex and its danger. Ecological and emotional dangers present themselves to the young boy whose father kills infected cattle for a living in Pinckney Benedict’s “Bridge of Sighs.” In Mary Miller’s “Leak” and Daniel Wallace’s “The Girls,” girls broaching adolescence live in awkward affection with their fathers. In Amina Gautier’s “The Ease of Living,” a teenager’s mother sends him to stay with his ailing grandfather in Tallahassee to get off the New York streets. Social issues thread through the stories with mixed effect. “Child of God” by Jennifer Moses, about a former addict, leaves a do-gooder aftertaste, but in “First Husband, First Wife,” Jim Tomlinson uses drug-dealing and legal bureaucracy to create a heart-wrenching love story. And in “Back of Beyond,” about a pawnbroker named Parson who must visit his estranged brother’s farm because Parson’s nephew has stolen and pawned a shotgun to support his meth habit, Ron Rash turns what could be clichés of white-trash Southernness into a masterpiece on rectitude and family.
A few clunkers, a few gems and many readable, very human slices of life.