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Presenting the past

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The cover of This Is Where We Live, a collection of stories by contemporary North Carolina writers, seems to depict a scene from some 30 years ago. A young man with long sideburns dressed in Chuck Taylors, black jeans and a garish red tie carries a bag of groceries. One stride behind is a woman riding a bike that your mother might have ridden, wearing a dress that your mother might have worn. An unhappy child clings to her from a plastic child seat and gazes at an anonymous suburban street. This could be your father's North Carolina. That is you in the child seat, looking uncertainly towards the future.

After another glance, however, the cover could easily depict a recent scene. These people wouldn't have any trouble blending in with the thrift-store disciples of present-day Franklin Street. The child could be gazing toward an entirely different future. In many of the stories in this collection edited by Michael McFee, characters look over their shoulders at a rural past to make sense of the increasingly urban days ahead. This fusion of past and present gives some characters comfort, but more often than not it results in painful realization.

In 1992, UNC Press published a collection of stories called The Rough Road Home: Stories by North Carolina Writers which aimed to showcase some of the state's most respected authors. This collection included stories by established writers such as Doris Betts, Reynolds Price and Lee Smith. McFee says This Is Where We Live serves as an update to that book, representing a new generation of North Carolina storytellers. McFee made a point of not including writers who appeared in The Rough Road Home. The fact that two anthologies can be compiled in eight years and represent 47 different writers is a testament to the strength of fiction writing in North Carolina, he says.

The form of these stories is as varied as the regions from which they come. While Tom Hawkins' short short "Wedding Night" is only two pages long, Peter Makuck's sprawling "Piecework" takes up 21 pages. While UNC-Greensboro's creative writing program boasts seven former students or faculty in this collection, Wilmington and Greenville contribute four different writers and Western North Carolina, five.

McFee says Terry Rowlett's painting "Flight into Egypt" represents the collection's overall "Southernness."

"This painting in particular seemed to embody the tone of the stories in this book, which are, for the most part, set not way out in the country or in a city, but in a sort of in-between neighborhood area like this street," he explains.

The idea of being in transition is a common one in the book. It is perhaps best illustrated by Tony Earley's story "Prophet from Jupiter." In the story, a dam-keeper continually reconstructs the history of the town that his house overlooks. Below lie "houses on 100-foot lots all the way around the lake, and too many real estate brokers. They all have jangling pockets full of keys and four-wheel-drive station wagons with coffee cups sitting on the dashboards." As he tries to keep the past at bay, the dam-keeper waits for his wife to give birth to another man's child.

Characters like the dam-keeper and his wife are in transition, but the place they inhabit is also evolving fast. "We live in a state that's developing and changing rapidly, and I think these stories reflect some of the unease and unsettled feelings that come with such growth," McFee says.

Michael Parker, whose story "Commit to Memory" leads off the collection, says fiction writers are moving away from an analysis of the past and towards an emphasis on the present.

"It seems most contemporary fiction I read, and that includes Southern fiction, is more concerned with the moment, with dramatic action rendered in the present tense. And why not? People in the South and elsewhere live their lives increasingly in the bullet-paced present."

Parker considers his collection Hello Down There a throwback in that many of its characters take an intense interest in the past. By Parker's standards This Is Where We Live could be considered a throwback of a collection. In Parker's "Commit to Memory," the narrator recounts his now-dead father's idealistic attitude towards bail bonding: "He felt, somehow, as if he was making it easier for people--his people--to live on this earth, and he quickly became as dependent on his clientele as they were on him." The narrator admires his father's willingness to do what he wanted to do (even unsuccessfully) and questions, "if I was doing what I wanted, and if so, if I was doing it at all well." As in Earley's story, the narrator seems to be peering down at the past from a contextual precipice in an attempt to make sense of an uncertain future.

McFee says the contemplation of the past that is prevalent in this collection is a result of often puzzling changes. "When the past as we knew it is changing so quickly, is vanishing, is already (to a large degree) gone, it becomes especially interesting as a subject," he adds.

Even June Spence's "Missing Women," which examines media coverage of the disappearance of three women from a suburban neighborhood, harkens back to an earlier time. Although the coverage described in the story is similar to the real-life crime investigations of the Polly Klaas and Jon-Benet Ramsey murders, Spence points out that crime has been selling newspapers since the days of Jack the Ripper. False histories are created for the disappeared women. A reporter even claims they never existed except as "modern local archetypes." The "we" point of view in Spence's story gives the entire town a voice.

"It allows for all the gossipy speculation that was afoot then; also it's tantalizingly 'omniscient,' all-knowing except about the most important thing," Spence says--which is what really happened to the women and which the narrators never find out.

N.C. State professor John Kessel examines the slipperiness of the past most directly in his "Buffalo." Early on in the story the narrator claims that the tale he is about to tell never took place. But since the main character has the same last name as the author, it is tempting to read it as nonfiction. The story describes an encounter between Kessel, who works in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp and is an avid reader of science fiction, and H.G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds. Kessel, an admirer of Wells, sees the science fiction writer at a Washington, D.C., ballroom where Duke Ellington is performing. Not coincidentally, the narrator is listening to Duke Ellington as he tells the story, and gazing at a photograph of his father taken in front of a Washington statue.

In a pivotal moment, the admiring, fictional Kessel makes the mistake of comparing Wells to the author of the Tarzan books, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Affronted, Wells shoos Kessel away and the two men never meet again. As he relates the event, the narrator, who the author says is a version of himself, "has the uncomfortable benefit of hindsight."

"He knows what will happen to both Wells and Kessel, the degree to which their dreams will or will not come true. This makes much of what Kessel and Wells think and plan ironic. That irony is a powerful driving force for me. The narrator can see a historical and personal context that the characters can't see because they're immersed in the middle of their lives and their times," Kessel says.

Readers of this collection will have the benefit of examining the lives on and behind the cover of This Is Where We Live. If another anthology of North Carolina writers is compiled 15 years from now, how will the scene on the cover be different? It is tempting to look into the future and speculate, like the character in "Buffalo," about the changes that are continually occurring in North Carolina. Toward the end of the story, he comes to the conclusion "that art doesn't have to deliver a message to say something important. That art isn't always a means to an end but sometimes an end in itself. That art may not be able to change the world, but it can still change the moment."

This Is Where We Live functions as an artifact of a moment in North Carolina history, preserved by its new generation of writers. But because many of the characters in the collection spend their time in the past, that moment being documented could be 25 years old. EndBlock

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