BOOK REVIEW: New Stories From the South 2008 

The Veil of southerness: ZZ Packer’s new collection of short fiction challenges old notions of identity

New Stories From the South [Buy Now]
Edited by ZZ Packer
Algonquin Books, 428 pages, $15

It may be that secrets live longer in the South, die harder, and more often go to the grave with their bearers than anywhere else.

It may be that the veil drawn across private trouble leaves hard facts too thin on the ground, but that same polite veil also shades a dappled garden where rumor and gossip may rise in place of dry certainty.

For the yarn-spinner, this is all to the good, hearsay being the native soil of fiction and secrecy the most reliable goad to the narrative impulse.

“The truth,” ZZ Packer writes in her introduction to New Stories from the South, “is that every awful and beautiful thing that has happened in America happened in the South first.”

What proceeds from this idea is a short story collection that harbors a noir-ish, if not gothic, heart. In spirit, these authors prowl the same mean streets down which Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled men of honor went — streets with lost souls, runners-up, and also-rans and an injured sort of dignity.

In “Bridge of Sighs,” Pinckney Benedict writes about an epizootic disease running wild through a town’s livestock. Cattle are put down and barns burned. The hunt to eradicate every trace of the disease threatening the town’s livestock and its social fabric becomes a matter of survival. He might just as easily be writing about an uncontrollable virus of haunted history.

Ron Rash tackles the effects of methamphetamine addiction in “Back of Beyond.” With its mine shuttered, a small town loses its primary employer and slowly, by turns, its soul. More and more of what little remains gets pawned away to feed “the craving.”

Holly Goddard Jones’ beautiful “Theory of Realty” brings us a girl on the threshold of womanhood, faced with a cast of female role models that may or may not suit. Choosing among them will, she comes to understand, determine less about her happiness than about the hope she may yet find in life.

The stories here beat at the hedges, scaring up game. But many of the characters can only long for flight. They’re often caught up in a tangled undergrowth, some of it of their own making, some of it very old and hand-me-down.

It’s a tangle Packer addresses when she marks the border between the “Southerners” and “southerners.”

“Southerners, in full possession of that capital ‘S,’ stroll through life with an unassailable sense of right and wrong,” she writes. “Right: chicken-fried steak, Jesus, zero taxation; wrong: vegetarianism, psychiatry, Birkenstocks. The ‘southerner,’ lowercase, does not stroll so much as simper.”

And that border between them? Packer implies it exists in how much of their struggle is hand-me-down and how much is simply life as a work-in-progress.

“The Southerner has pride in the past glories of the South while the southerner stakes pride in the small daily miracles of the South — the progress that is made each day of our lives, often absent any visible examples.”

What this points to, perhaps, is that Packer’s “Southerner” is a cultivated thing, grown for remembrance’s sake. The garden variety southerner — more like his fellows in any other region — encroaches on his geography, makes his own history, wields a freer hand on his own destiny.

The stories Packer has chosen for this anthology lift the veil on this latter, hybrid character.

In these stories, there are hard-won truths, sometimes kaleidoscopic in their variety and beauty. The beauty, however, is only the charm that arouses interest. The proud, honest struggle — less of the South than of the human heart — is what lingers in memory.


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