By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The Gasoline Wars
By Jean Thompson
University of Illinois Press. $10; $3.95 paper.
Despite the crisis in contemporary fiction, the persistent feeling that the old Modernist forms are tired out and that the new has not yet slouched toward Manhattan's publishing houses, there are writers who continue to write, and to surprise us, with the conventions of realistic fiction. John Sayles and Albert Haley are two young writers of this stripe who have published short story collections within the past year. Jean Thompson is another.
No dowdy naturalist, Thompson is concerned with formal problems, but not paralyzed by them. The language of these stories achieves the grace of extreme economy and precision. Her typography is impeccably modernlike William Gass's, her pages are free of quotation marks. Fortunately, we hardly notice. [return to top]
A couple of years ago I was out peddling book ideas and a wise young editor bluntly recommended I sit down and write a "southern novel." "It's going to be the next thing," he said, or something like that, meant to suggest down-home books could be the publishing equivalent of Sonny Crockett. Well, these days the new-release shelves are brimming with books by southern writers-southern women writers. But are they writing southern novels? Or did Faulkner capture the last unicorn.
Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ellen Gilchrist, Lee Smith, Blanche McCrary Boyd, and Cecil Dawkins are creating something of a southern fiction boom. Their work is casing a stir among critics, and they've also won over sales reps who get books into stores. Although Rita Mae Brown and Anne Tyler were perhaps the forerunners of this boom, Brown was quickly tucked away in the ideological ranks of feminist/lesbian literature and Tyler was left to fend for herself with the boys. At a fiery conference on women in literature at San Francisco State last year, the rhetorical wrangling never got around to the prodigious output of contemporary women writers. With the exception of Rita Mae Brown, none of these southerners was even mentioned. But they're putting out too many books to be ignored.
Scattered from the hills of Arkansas to the Low Country of South Carolina and the mines of Appalachia, these women are not the least concerned with academic assessments. In contrast to the male writers who are so conscious of joining a long tradition of imperial rule over American literature, they are neither constrained by the canon nor led to expect untouchable status. They are still washing dishes after dinner, I suspect. Today's white southern woman writers are also unconcerned about regional literary tradition. They are not a school-unlike, for instance, the black women novelists, so prominent since the early '70s, whose novels constitute a kind of intimate yet wide-ranging conversation. And these white women do not commune with the past, as we have been taught all good southerners must. The new southern writers, without the old web of strict personal values and hell-bent heroism, often as not create characters who are casualties of a loss of place.
There was a time, 20 years ago, when you could look for a woman fiction writer in any American literature anthology and likely come up with a southernerEudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor or Carson McCullers. The big Four were among a handful of women allowed into the American academic canon, but they were still segregated on the distaff side of something called Southern literature. Some scholars still view them as merely the daughters of Confederate diarists, those unknowns printed in handsomely bound editions with title like Lady Southern Writers of Today. But at their best, they rivaled Faulkner for their complex portraits of a dying world both quaint and harsh, romantic and brutalizing. Eudora Welty is still writing her carefully rendered remembrances if the Mississippi Delta country. But Welty probably the last of the good ole gals, because if a southern phenomenon in literature is there, the South really isn't. It would seem that Faulkner's forest has been cleared.
Welty has written that "remembering is done through the blood, it is a bequeathment, it takes account of what happens before a man is born as he were there taking part." In the work of earlier southerner, found objects all had a history, as Welty tells us in her most recent book, One Writer's Beginnings:
We used the Lamar Life stationary, which carried on its letterhead an oval portrait of Lucius Quintas Cincinnatus Lamar, for whom the Company had been named: a Mississippian who had been a member of Congress, Secretary of the Interior under Cleveland, and a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a powerful orator who had pressed for the better reconciliation of North and South after the Civil War. Under his bearded portrait we all wrote letters to Mother
It is this culture-devoted to the naming of people and places, fascinated with the Greeks and Romans and antiquity itself, in the habit of retelling old, often African, homilies which defines the southern literature of yesterday. These books mythologize the ways in which people hold on to an increasingly despised old world and yet tolerate the disruptive, forgetful present: One trains the young and keeps all the letters.