New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 1999

Overview

An honest look at the South

In this year's preface, Tony Earley writes, "It is easy to make up characters who live in double-wide mobile homes, wear beehive hairdos and feed caps, never put a g on the end of a participle, have sex with their cousins, voted for George Wallace, who squint and spit whenever an out-of-towner uses a polysyllabic word; who aspire only to own a bass boat, scare a Yankee, have sex with their cousins again, burn a cross, eat something fried, speak in ...

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Overview

An honest look at the South

In this year's preface, Tony Earley writes, "It is easy to make up characters who live in double-wide mobile homes, wear beehive hairdos and feed caps, never put a g on the end of a participle, have sex with their cousins, voted for George Wallace, who squint and spit whenever an out-of-towner uses a polysyllabic word; who aspire only to own a bass boat, scare a Yankee, have sex with their cousins again, burn a cross, eat something fried, speak in tongues, do anything butt nekkid...What is difficult is to take the poor, the uneducated, the superstitious, the backward, the redneck, the 'trailer trash,' and make them real human beings, with hopes and dreams and aspirations as real and valid, and as worthy of our fair consideration, as any Cheeverian Westchester County housewife."

We couldn't agree more. Just as Tony Earley makes a plea for honest writing by challenging the stereotypes that wend their way through Southern literature, so Shannon Ravenel picks twenty singular writers who tell honest stories. Whether it's the Edgar-winning story of three orphaned brothers or the young girl who ends up in a strange motel room with a man she hardly knows or the old man who kills his son, every story here tells the honest truth about the South in unforgettable ways.

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Editorial Reviews

John Flesher
These stories about life...about people who could live anywhere but are firmly rooted in the soil of America's forever fascinating South.
ForeWord
Arkansas Times
One of the most prestigious of the annual fiction anthologies.
The New Yorker
Allen writes about an apparently ordinary life with such pleasing, perceptive assurance that it becomes revelatory.
St. Petersburg Times
Put this 15th anniversary volume on your nightstand or coffee table to savor its contents at will. Shannon Ravenel continues her tradition of harvesting quality stories.
Mississippi Northeas Daily Journal
When it comes to reading, it just flat-out doesn't get much better than ‘New Stories from the South.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I say to those who read this volume, let there be peace now about what the South is or isn't.... The `South' is just a great excuse to bring some wonderful artists together to peer deep into the yearnings of the human heart." As contributor Robert Olen Butler's preface suggests, both newcomers and natives, stalwarts and up-and-comers, show up in these 19 splendid stories, and the quality of their work should overwhelm all geo-historical niggling. For some, place is a central character; for others, a necessary but ethereal backdrop. More constant than any version of Southernness is a preoccupation with mortality. Many of the tales concern characters who, in the face of death, must take stock of their lives. In Patricia Elam Ruff's affecting "The Taxi Ride," we watch 75-year-old Helen as she nurses her husband through his final weeks, then share her exhilaration, grief and anguish when she is befriended by an elderly cab driver. In Marc Vassallo's "After the Opera," the ghost of old love inhabits the body of the living, as a man learns that his widowed mother has secretly married his father's rival colleague. Family estrangements aren't the only distances covered in this collection. Race relations take center stage in several of the stories; so does frustrated passion. Dale Ray Phillips's "Corporal Love" gives a brilliant look at the emotion that lingers after a marriage has ended. On a lighter note, Butler's "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover" is a hilarious, touching story about a relationship between a lonely divorce and an alien she meets in the parking lot of a 24-hour Wal-Mart in Bovary, Ala. Pathos, levity, sarcasm and social commentary mix gracefully in this 11th annual edition. (Sept.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As quoted by Ellen Douglas in her preface to the 15th anthology in this consistently strong series, a neighbor of Flannery O'Connor once said, "Them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do." The 20 short narratives collected here are best enjoyed in the same spirit, as mesmerizing snippets from lonely, often strange, people's lives. "He's at the Office," by Allan Gurganus, is the best of an impressive bunch. In Gurganus's intense, tightly composed tale, narrator R. Richard Markham Jr. discovers that Dick Sr.'s workaholism covers up a more serious sickness and ingeniously preserves what's left of his ailing father's selective memory. Memory is also the theme of R.H.W. Dillard's "Forgetting the End of the World," which is postscripted with a wink from the author: "I do not remember having written this story." Cathy Day's imaginative contribution, "The Circus House," is set at the turn of the 20th century in Peru, Ind., where "Mrs. Colonel" Ford is the genteel, self-described "First Lady" of the Great Porter Circus & Sideshow Menagerie. Her husband manages their marriage with the same practiced logic he brings to his traveling enterprise, leading Mrs. Colonel Ford to swallow her pride and chase after a younger man. "Sheep," the story of a death row inmate told from the inmate's own perspective, is Thomas H. McNeely's accomplished debut. Another young writer, Christopher Miner, introduces a self-righteous home wrecker in "Rhonda and Her Children," a wicked satire. Both Mary Helen Stefaniak ("A Note to Biographers Regarding Famous Author Flannery O'Connor") and Margo Rabb ("How to Tell a Story") use real-life experiences--Stefaniak's mother and aunts went to school with O'Connor, and Rabb's parents were killed in a plane crash--as their respective foundations for witty and tender stories. Polished works by Tony Earley, Tim Gautreaux, A. Manette Ansay, Robert Olen Butler, Clyde Edgerton, Melanie Sumner and Wendy Brenner round out this diverse and compelling collection. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Once again, this series does not disappoint. As the South has changed, so have the voices emerging from the deltas, farms, and burgeoning metropolitan areas. These voices offer personal histories of human interactions, such as Rick DeMarinis's "Borrowed Hearts." Others, like Mary Gordon's "Storytelling," reveal the gifts of friendships and the inspirations for stories. Most of these stories are not particularly Southern-related, but they are most definitely Southern-flavored. The memorable writing of Laura Payne Butler's "Booker T's Coming Home" speaks of the legacy of the South, while this reader's personal favorite, Wendy Brenner's "The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication," seems to be taking place anywhere and nowhere. Short stories such as these remind the world that the South has rich, deep talent and fertile ground for the art of storytelling. There's writing here to please any reader, no matter what his or her geography.--Shannon Haddock, Bellsouth Corporate Lib. & Business Research Ctr., Birmingham, AL Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As Southern as Spanish moss on the bayou and the smell of sweet potato pie at a church picnic, this collection exemplifies the Southern experience. Editor Ravenel's 14th year of collecting the best Southern short stories proves to be an enjoyable read, placing this newest compilation in respectable company with previous editions. Veteran writers such as Lee Smith and Robert Olen Butler bring humor and insight to the mix, while newcomers like Marc Vassallo and Rhian Margaret Ellis offer realism and sadness brought on by family secrets and betrayals. Love with a space alien invades an Alabama town. Writer's block torments a native Southerner in the Big Apple. From the absurd to the ordinary, this anthology is a respectable body of witticisms, reminiscences, and observances propelled by a common Southern undercurrent. The healthiest of lives here encompass various aspects of pain, loss, joy, renewal, celebration, contentment, and serenity. Ravenel has gathered a healthy sampling of the human experience south of the Mason-Dixon line.Shannon Williams Haddock, Bellsouth Corporate Lib. & Business Research Ctr., Birmingham, Ala.
Kirkus Reviews
The 11th installment in this excellent series is certainly one of the strongest, with 19 stories that capture the diversity of the South in voice and place, drawing on a range of old and new talents.

The Old South of decaying mansions, men in seersucker, and women in lace is well recalled in first-rate tales by Charles East ("Pavane for a Dead Princess"), who meditates on the phenomenon of elderly ladies and their young male companions; by Pam Durban ("Gravity"), who beautifully records the decline of a once- distinguished Charleston family; and by Ellen Douglas ("Julia and Nellie"), who offers a tale of friendship transcending serious religious conflict. The rural and working-class South provides its own meaning and wistfulness: In Judy Troy's "Ramone," a young girl relocates to the small Texas town where her stepfather's father lies dying; in Patricia Elam Ruff's moving and elegiac "The Taxi Ride," an elderly woman, tired but happy in her long marriage, finds a welcome friend in a courtly cab-driver; in Janice Daugharty's "Along a Wider River," a former sharecropper watches his old boss fumble and die while fishing; and in Rhian Margaret Ellis's "Every Building Wants to Fall," a fatherless girl, feeling powerless and hopeless as well, discovers a perverse strength in causing her friend's epileptic seizures. Some inspired low comedy (and more class conflict) comes from two familiar experts: Tim Gautreaux's "Little Frogs in a Ditch" is a droll tale concerning a no-account loser who sells common roof pigeons as homing pigeons; and Lee Smith's unsparing "Native Daughter" turns on the conceit of its haughty narrator, a pretty girl from Kentucky who doesn't realize that her clubby male companions consider her easy trash.

Robert Olen Butler's tetchy introduction—with its bristling at the notion of "Southern" fiction—insists on the universality of art, but his fears are misplaced. The superb stories here quietly demonstrate that the universal always resides in the particular.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565122475
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Series: New Stories from the South Ser.
  • Pages: 306
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.92 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Tony Earley was selected by Granta as one of today's best young writers, The New Yorker featured him in its best young fiction writers issue, and his first novel, Jim the Boy, became a national best-seller. He is also the author of a highly praised collection of short stories, Here We Are in Paradise. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and teaches writing at Vanderbilt University.

Shannon Ravenel has edited New Stories from the South since 1986. Formerly editorial director of Algonquin Books, she now directs her Algonquin imprint, Shannon Ravenel Books. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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Read an Excerpt

from the Preface: Letter from Sister-What We Learned at the P.O.

I have a theory-perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated-that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." Welty's story smacks of a certain now-familiar sensibility, rife with caricature, overstated eccentricity, and broadly drawn humor, that has come to represent Southern writing and, through that representation, the South itself.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to read much Southern fiction and not come upon story after story faithfully cut from our landscape and culture, using the template provided by Welty in 1941. The characters in "Why I Live at the P.O." possess the prototypical, colorful Southern names that, in the musical sound of their regional specificity, have come to promise colorful Southern doings: Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, Stella-Rondo, Shirley-T., Sister. They eat green-tomato pickle and, on the Fourth of July, sport about in flesh-colored kimonos while impaired by prescription drugs. They live in Mississippi. They grow long beards and illegitimate children and mismatched sets of breasts.

In delicious, honey-coated accents they utter the delicious, honey-coated statements, void of any real importance, that fall sweetly on the ears of book-buying lovers of stereotype everywhere. "Papa-Daddy," Stella-Rondo says, when she's looking to stir up trouble, "Papa-Daddy! . . . Sister says she fails to understand why you don't cut off your beard." Uncle Rondo, after he has donned Stella-Rondo's flesh-colored kimono and illegally ingested God knows what prescription narcotic (he's a pharmacist), cries, "Sister, get out of my way, I'm poisoned."

So faithfully have the conventions of "Why I Live at the P.O." been copied by succeeding generations of writers, so dominant has the regionally identified literature laid out by the story become, that Welty might well have titled it "How to Exploit the People of the Nation's Poorest Region and Get a Really Big Book Advance." All of which is at least shameful, if not artistically criminal, because "Why I Live at the P.O." is a bona fide work of genius, not only one of the best short stories produced by a Southern writer, but one of the best stories by any writer, anywhere.

The genius of "Why I Live at the P.O." lies not in the story that the narrator, Sister, tells us-which is, without question, broadly told, colorful, eccentric, and side-splittingly funny-but in the story Sister does not know she is telling us. In her hysterical attempt to win us over to her side in a seemingly inconsequential family dispute, Sister inadvertently reveals the emotional and spiritual burdens that she and the members of her family must pull through their lives. Stella-Rondo has been abandoned by a traveling salesman who might or might not be her husband, leaving her to raise a daughter who might or might not be illegitimate. Uncle Rondo is a shell-shocked veteran of World

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Table of Contents

PREFACE: "Letter from Sister—What we learned at the P.O."

by Tony Earley

Michael Knight, "Birdland"

From THE NEW YORKER

Heather Sellers, "Fla. Boys"

From FIVE POINTS

Clyde Edgerton, "Lunch at the Piccadilly"

From THE CAROLINA QUARTERLY

William Gay, "Those Deep Elm Brown's Ferry Blues"

From THE MISSOURI REVIEW

Richard Bausch, "Missy"

From FIVE POINTS

George Singleton, "Caulk"

From SHENANDOAH

Rick DeMarinis, "Borrowed Hearts"

From THE ANTIOCH REVIEW

Wendy Brenner, "The Human Side of Instrumental Transcommunication"

From STORY

Ingrid Hill, "Pagan Babies"

From THE SOUTHERN REVIEW

Richard Schmitt, "Leaving Venice, Florida"

From MISSISSIPPI REVIEW

Mary Gordon, "Storytelling"

From THE THREEPENNY REVIEW

Mary Clyde, "Krista Had a Treble Clef Rose"

From BOULEVARD

Laura Payne Butler, "Booker T's Coming Home"

From THE DISTILLERY

Michael Erard, "Beyond the Point"

From THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW

Pinckney Benedict, "Miracle Boy"

From ESQUIRE

Kurt Rheinheimer, "Neighborhood"

From THE GREENSBORO REVIEW

Andrew Alexander, "Little Bitty Pretty One"

From MISSISSIPPI REVIEW

Janice Daugharty, "Name of Love"

From STORY

Tony Earley, "Quill"

From ESQUIRE

Tom Franklin, "Poachers"

From THE TEXAS REVIEW

APPENDIX

PREVIOUS VOLUMES

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Preface

Letter from Sister-What We Learned at the P.O.

I have a theory-perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated-that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." Welty's story smacks of a certain now-familiar sensibility, rife with caricature, overstated eccentricity, and broadly drawn humor, that has come to represent Southern writing and, through that representation, the South itself.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to read much Southern fiction and not come upon story after story faithfully cut from our landscape and culture, using the template provided by Welty in 1941. The characters in "Why I Live at the P.O." possess the prototypical, colorful Southern names that, in the musical sound of their regional specificity, have come to promise colorful Southern doings: Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, Stella-Rondo, Shirley-T., Sister. They eat green-tomato pickle and, on the Fourth of July, sport about in flesh-colored kimonos while impaired by prescription drugs. They live in Mississippi. They grow long beards and illegitimate children and mismatched sets of breasts.

In delicious, honey-coated accents they utter the delicious, honey-coated statements, void of any real importance, that fall sweetly on the ears of book-buying lovers of stereotype everywhere. "Papa-Daddy," Stella-Rondo says, when she's looking to stir up trouble, "Papa-Daddy! . . . Sister says she fails to understand why you don't cut off your beard." Uncle Rondo, after he has donned Stella-Rondo's flesh-colored kimono and illegally ingested God knows what prescription narcotic (he's a pharmacist), cries, "Sister, get out of my way, I'm poisoned."

So faithfully have the conventions of "Why I Live at the P.O." been copied by succeeding generations of writers, so dominant has the regionally identified literature laid out by the story become, that Welty might well have titled it "How to Exploit the People of the Nation's Poorest Region and Get a Really Big Book Advance." All of which is at least shameful, if not artistically criminal, because "Why I Live at the P.O." is a bona ?de work of genius, not only one of the best short stories produced by a Southern writer, but one of the best stories by any writer, anywhere.

The genius of "Why I Live at the P.O." lies not in the story that the narrator, Sister, tells us-which is, without question, broadly told, colorful, eccentric, and side-splittingly funny-but in the story Sister does not know she is telling us. In her hysterical attempt to win us over to her side in a seemingly inconsequential family dispute, Sister inadvertently reveals the emotional and spiritual burdens that she and the members of her family must pull through their lives. Stella-Rondo has been abandoned by a traveling salesman who might or might not be her husband, leaving her to raise a daughter who might or might not be illegitimate. Uncle Rondo is a shell-shocked veteran of World War I who once had a breakdown because one of his nieces broke a chain letter from Flanders Field. Mama is a tired woman-a widow, one presumes-who knows that she must spend the rest of her days caring for and keeping peace among, the rapidly aging daughters she can't marry off; her senile father; and her shell-shocked, drug-addled brother. Papa-Daddy's rages are directed not so much at Sister, but at what a colorful writer who wasn't from around here famously called the "dying of the light" (Sister tells us he's "just about a million years old").

And Sister, poor Sister. She thinks she is simply justifying to us her reasons for choosing to live in the second smallest post office in the state of Mississippi. But what she doesn't know she is telling us is that she is horribly alone, that she realizes she will spend the rest of her life in a tiny, tiny place, with no chance of escape, unloved and unmarried, dependent upon the charity of her family. Her monologue to us, unbeknownst to her, is at once a comedic tour de force and a heartrending cry in the wilderness.

While these aren't new critical insights, they are, I think, important ones. The bright surface of "Why I Live at the P.O." is so extraordinarily attractive that it is easy to see why it has been so often imitated. But it is also easy to see why, if only the surface of Welty's story is imitated, the result is but a shallow and often exploitative parody of a great work of art. It is easy to make up characters who live in double-wide mobile homes, wear beehive hairdos and feed caps, never put a g on the end of a participle, have sex with their cousins, voted for George Wallace; who squint and spit whenever an out-of-towner uses a polysyllabic word; who aspire only to own a bass boat, scare a Yankee, have sex with their cousins again, burn a cross, eat something fried, speak in tongues, do anything butt nekkid, be a guest on a daytime talk show, and make the next payment on a satellite dish that points toward Venus and picks up 456 separate channels on a clear day. What is difficult is to take the poor, the uneducated, the superstitious, the backward, the redneck, the "trailer-trash," and make them real human beings, with hopes and dreams and aspirations as real and valid, and as worthy of our fair consideration, as any Cheeverian Westchester County housewife.

While I can forgive our brothers and sisters from other parts of the country for taking pleasure in, or even creating, a Southern literature based on stereotype, I find it harder to forgive Southerners who do the same thing, particularly if they are capable of writing with greater understanding but choose not to. What Welty's more cynical impersonators* choose to ignore is that the eccentricities portrayed in "Why I Live at the P.O." are character-specific and not indicative of any larger pattern of regional or cultural behavior or belief. The humor in the words Uncle Rondo arises not from the words themselves, but from the way Sister says them.

While the sound of Sister's voice has become the matriarch of all the shrill, self-absorbed voices we hear in Southern fiction, yammering on about nothing at all, we should remember that her voice is also one of agenda and calculation. Sister wants to make her family look bad; she wants us to believe that they are stupid and that, in their stupidity, they have treated her unfairly. What worries me is the possibility that Sister's voice, with all its layers of complexity, will become lost in the din raised by its imitators, and that din will become, if it hasn't already, the only voice we hear in our heads when we think about the nature of the word Southern.

I am often asked if I consider myself a Southern writer, and, to be honest, my answer depends on-to borrow a line from Owen Wister's Virginian, one of the most famously one-dimensional Southern stereotypes-whether or not my questioner smiles when he calls me that. If he means, do I make fun of my characters because they are Southern and because there is a bottomless market for that sort of thing, then the answer is no. But if he means, do I consider myself someone who at least attempts to portray the people of my native region in all their complexity and diversity and Christ-hauntedness and moral ambiguity, the answer is yes, I consider myself a Southern writer.

And as a Southern writer-even one who tends to be as thin-skinned, testy, and self-righteous about this issue as I am-I have been tempted to lower the IQs of my characters, name them Something-or-Other Bob, and stick their illiterate backsides to a Naugahyde La-Z-Boy in order to make myself popular and sell some books. The real danger arises when too many of us at once give in to this invidious urge. In creating our own literature, a Southern literature, we often go for the quick laugh, the easy buck, the cardboard character. When we do that, we eat away the foundation of that literature from the inside. My fear is that, eventually, because of our willingness to feed on, without replacing, the tenets and traditions and subjects given to us by our predecessors-Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner most prominent among them-Southern writing will collapse and bury all of us, leaving only kudzu, grits, and a certain vaguely familiar voice to mark the spot.

*I understand that I am committing an act of critical cowardice here by not naming names. My concern is that I might inadvertently indict a writer who is doing the best he or she can do. I would hate to snag the sincere but unsuccessful in a net cast for the cynical. But to those Southern writers who are cynical, mercenary, exploitative, and aware: You know who you are. Shame on you.

Use of this excerpt from NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:

Copyright (c) 1999 by Tony Earley. All rights reserved.

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