Edward P. Jones serves up the liveliest bunch of stories from below the Mason-Dixon.
Each August for the last five years, I’ve found myself standing in a book store and holding an annual anthology entitled New Stories from the South . Not all that strange, I suppose, except for two things: I never actively look for it because I’m rarely attracted by anthologies, and for each of the last four Augusts, I’ve been in different cities when my copy found me. New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, and now, somehow, Boston.
This year marks the anthology’s twenty-second edition, and its guest editor is Edward P. Jones, who won the Pulitzer Prize a couple years back for The Known World. It’s a particularly Southern novel about slavery and family, as well as that very Southern social Cerberus, race, history, and identity. The identity crisis revealed in The Known World, however, is about African Americans who enslaved other African Americans. Something of a whopper, that.
In his introduction to New Stories from the South, Jones admits to having his own minor identity crisis – or maybe “identity question.” Though he’s an editor of an anthology devoted to the Southern literary arts, Jones isn’t exactly Southern. He’s from D.C., which Southerners will tell you (rather adamantly) is not the South. Hell, even Texas is more Southern (but only when it’s on the South’s good side).
But Jones remarks, as every editor of the series that I can recall has, on the importance of storytelling in Southern character and its development. He says directly that, upon reading great Southern writers, he discovered that he identified more with their characters and tales than with stories about Northerners. They were, somehow, like him. “I was of the South,” he says, “because that was what I inherited.”
Previous editors have remarked on New Stories from the South’s special place in American anthologies, as it is the only annual anthology about a region’s style. They’ve also focused on Southern writing’s close relationship with the seminal oral-tale tradition, from which fiction grew legs so it might walk on its own. After all, Winesburg, Ohio is more than just part of the foundation of the American lexicon; it’s also a bunch of stories that Sherwood Andersontold to entertain his fellow barflies in New Orleans while he was tutoring William Faulkner. A couple years ago, Allan Gurganus quoted Flannery O’Connor, who was asked why Southern writing is so full of freaks. “Because,” she answered delightedly, “we’re still able to recognize one.” To which Gurganus added, “Often at family reunions.”
Edward P. Jones
Jones puts his own mark on this self-absorption by noting the Southern tale tellers’ propensity to meander on their way to the point. He remarks rather succinctly that Southerners know “how to entertain on the way to their point.”
The 2007 edition of New Stories from the South hits upon all of these qualities, here and there.
There are Southern elements for entertainment’s sake: Straight-talking, atonal country singers, heavy machinery, tough women who drive trucks, men who love dogs and one-eyed welders.
And there’s good-old tale telling, such as in the little boy who looks out from his Florida trailer home for a father figure to happily settle on a “Cowboy Hall of Fame” inductee who was recently thrown out by the boy’s mother and who thinks of the kid as little more than a human-size gnat.
There’s an old rancher whose sense of gallantry (and, to a lesser extent, hygiene) gets him mixed up with a bunch of bikers who urinated into a young woman’s car window, and there’s a Christmas story about the youngest of six brothers, a romantic whose mother locks him out of the house because he’s drunk in two ways: always and very.
There’s a Native American father and son who wake up to find a field of corn has migrated around the U.S. and into their front yard, and there’s a safe whose locked-up secrets enthrall and then transform a junkyard manager and his staff.
There’s an all-around-good-guy basketball coach, who happens to be sleeping with one of the girls on the team, while his homemaker wife shatters emotionally over their mortally ill infant.
And there’s a town that floods and an old man who drives his boat around his neighborhood to save everyone, including some water-treading boys from the projects, an old flame, and a pair of blindly loyal golden retrievers. (Also from Allan Gurganus, “Fourteen Feet of Water in my House” is one of New Stories from the South’s brightest moments.)
There’s Southern identity, too, in all the names: Dudley, Little Dickie, Charlene, and Melvin. We find Joe Bim Higgins, Lester, Jatarius, a strong but innocent Josie, and, of course, a Sissy. There’s a Lawton and a Moxley, a dog named Buddy and another named Claude. There’s even a band named Bluford Tucker and the Abandon Boys.
One of New Stories from the South’s consistent strengths rests in the short paragraph that follows each entry. The writers have the rare opportunity to remark on the story the reader just read, and the nuggets of inspiration found there are always enlightening. Sometimes the writer focuses on method or a tale’s unsuspected development. But they often offer a brief eureka moment, like a magician revealing the extra dove they have hidden under the hat. They show you how a character isn’t a person but an amalgamation of people, how a happening is composed in part by faulty memory and part accidental imagination – or sometimes how a seven-page story took seven years to write. But, always, they reveal how delightfully surprised they are at the strange worlds – and freaks – they create.
Well, I’m off to find a plate of fried chicken and grits. Take care, y’all.
Between the Covers is a biweekly book review and publishing analysis.