Chapel Hill is where you stop and smell the flowers, or so you'll probably conclude from reading 27 Views of Chapel Hill, a collection of writing about, by and for the place and its people.
There are two reminiscences about the long-loved Gimghoul Street garden of Barbara Stiles and Bernice Wade. There is poet Michael McFee effusing about the aroma of honeysuckle, and Crook's Corner chef Bill Smith picking it to make sorbet. Marcie Cohen Ferris and Bland Simpson go walking in and around Battle Park, the 90-acre woods that happen to lie smack in the middle of town.
Even when flowers aren't the main subject, they keep blooming. Moreton Neal, whose husband Bill was Bill Smith's partner at Crook's Corner, writes a loving eulogy to Georgia Carroll Kyser, a different kind of flower, in "The Beauty Queen of Chapel Hill." Jim Seay, visiting the grave of his dead son in "Down Among the Bones, the Darks, the Sparrows" (first published in the Indy last fall), watches a bee fly among "the asters, marigolds, Russian sage, and rosemary I have brought to his grave today."
In the introduction to 27 Views of Chapel Hill, novelist Daniel Wallace trumpets Chapel Hill's rich and thriving literary garden, which, he posits, can be traced back to two heirloom seeds: Thomas Wolfe, the Ashevillian who attended UNC-Chapel Hill, and William Faulkner, who according to Wallace once visited Chapel Hill and "apparently was drunk every second."
After reading 27 Views of Chapel Hill's prose and poetry, much of which is reprinted from earlier publications, I propose a different literary forefather: Walker Percy. Percy, like Wolfe, wasn't from Chapel Hill (he hailed from New Orleans, another hothouse of writing) but went to its college. It's Percy's voice—well-bred, genteel, unhurried, contemplative—that echoes more strongly through the book than does the streaming, keening lyricism that readers tend to associate with Faulkner and Wolfe. The writing, like the town—which is sometimes called "a pat of butter in a sea of grits," as two of the book's writers remind us—is mostly contented and comfortable, a pleasant place in which to deliquesce.
Like 27 Views of Hillsborough, a similar title from Eno Publishers (which will produce Asheville and Durham collections next year), 27 Views of Chapel Hill is arranged in thematic sections. "Fans & Friends" comprises mostly paeans to a few local institutions: Jock Lauterer on James Taylor, Linnie Greene on Chapel Hill's hallowed music scene, and Harry Amana and Will Blythe on, respectively, women's and men's basketball.
"Friends & Neighbors" focuses more closely on relationships and lives. Its highlight is an oral history of Mama Dip's Kitchen from the venerable Mrs. Council herself. (On her first day of business in 1976, Council had so little start-up money that she had to use the profits from breakfast to buy provisions for lunch.)
"Street Scenes" takes a wider view, including Paul Cuadros' look at the influx of Latino cooks at places like the ancient Sutton's Drugstore. Sy Safransky delivers an evocative account of the Community Bookstore, the old hippie gathering place, above which Safransky founded The Sun in a tiny dormer-room office. The section is rounded out by a younger writer, Sacrificial Poet C. J. Suitt, and his jarringly uncomfortable poem, "I Grew Up in a City" ("where progress and distress go hand in hand").
In the next section, "A Place Apart," most of the flowers bloom, courtesy of McFee, Simpson, Ferris and D. G. Martin. Then comes "Views From Before," an idiosyncratic quintet of historical writings that concludes with another dissenting Sacrificial Poet, Will McInerney, who compares his umbilical cord to the trees torn from Chapel Hill's earth to build the town's houses.
The book's final full section before a short, parting "Love Letter" to Chapel Hill, on the occasion of his decamping for Colorado, by novelist Nic Brown (Daniel Wallace's son-in-law, as it happens), is "Views in Fiction." The best of these three stories, UNC-Chapel Hill creative writing professor Lawrence Naumoff's "The Beautiful Couple, Everyone Says So," is published incompletely—it's the first few pages of a longer short story. In it, a newlywed couple, seniors at UNC-Chapel Hill in the late 1960s, are "part of the literary/ artsy set" of the decadent counterculture. It "will have been the best year of their lives," but in the moment unease creeps in, especially for the young wife, an art major, as they finish college and decide to leave Blue Heaven—and then the story abruptly breaks off, just before they go west.
It's an appropriate truncation, because it leaves the couple in the full, final flower of their youthful dreams before the bloom falls and lands on the hard ground of adulthood. This perspective recurs throughout 27 Views of Chapel Hill. As McFee writes, "It's a place of early blooming, where people can just go ahead and burst into blossom without worrying about the pressures that might hold them back elsewhere."
That "early blooming" quality is what allowed Safransky to "fail again and again" as he attempted to launch The Sun—"but I didn't compromise and I didn't starve," he adds. And he wound up succeeding. Perhaps it also allows Wells Tower, in the book's opening essay, "Life on the Hill," to write, "In Chapel Hill, a town too genial to demand much of its people, one can simply be."
As long as you don't root for Duke.
A launch event for 27 Views of Chapel Hill takes place at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at Flyleaf Books. There will also be an event Oct. 11 at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham. And, on Nov. 13, authors associated with the book will appear at a fundraiser for the Chapel Hill Public Library. Visit chplfoundation.org.