At first glance, the landmark 25th edition of Algonquin's venerable New Stories From the South appears to be alphabetically arranged. It starts off with newcomer Adam Atlas and then moves on to old-timer Rick Bass, who led off 2007's A-to-Z version—but then it jumps down the alphabet to Brad Watson, who has not only the third story but also the 24th.
Are guest editor Amy Hempel and series editor Kathy Pories pointing us to a change in Southern literature? "New Year's Weekend on the Hand Surgery Ward, Old Pilgrims' Hospital, Naples, Italy" is just the second published story by Atlas—shove over, Uncle Bass—and as you will have guessed from the title, it isn't set in the South, unless southern Italy counts.
Yet the hapless cast of "New Year's Weekend"—a bunch of mostly doofuses who have blown off parts of their hands while messing around with firecrackers—easily calls the South to mind. Take these guys named Giovanni and Secondigliano, get them out of Naples, rename them Joe Bob and Junior and drop them down in Greenville (any of the South's 11 Greenvilles will serve), adjust their dialect a little, and you're comfortably in the South.
It seems deliberate that this tale is followed by Bass' "Fish Story," and not just because of the Tall Tale heralded by that title. It is set in Texas, features an 86-pound catfish and is told in a more languorously Southern voice. Where Atlas' narrator observes in the second sentence that "I began chopping onions and I cut off the end of my thumb," Bass takes his time, oaring through memory: "In the early 1960s my parents ran a service station about sixty miles west of Fort Worth." We get a paragraph of that life before Bass moves into his narrative of a 10-year-old tasked with keeping the whiskered leviathan alive all day before it becomes a country feast.
The contrast between Atlas and Bass informs us that Southern literature is both changing and staying the same. Hempel admits that she neither hails from nor lives in the region and observes that rookies and repeaters in her edition are split nearly half-and-half. There are stalwarts like Bass, Tim Gautreaux and Padgett Powell, and there are also young gate-crashers like Atlas and Chapel Hill-born Wells Tower and Kenneth Calhoun.
Calhoun teaches something called interactive media at Elon University (he was at Duke before that). Perhaps interactive media can be understood in "Nightblooming" to mean that Calhoun writes a hilarious, finely tuned, disarmingly emotive story about a young prog rock drummer who guests for a swing band of octogenarian retirees and later parties with them, and you interact with it by laughing until tears run at lines like "a roast sits smoldering like a meteorite in the old car-sized oven" and by stopping at the story's sweet and lonely final sound-image.
"Nightblooming" could be set almost anywhere, and Calhoun isn't a native Southerner, but plenty of other entries in New Stories bear unmistakable Dixie stamps. Bass' catfish makes a shadowy reappearance in the very next story, Watson's "Noon," and there are a couple of largemouth bass sightings, too. A dead deer threatens in Kevin Wilson's "Housewarming." After it's found floating in a man's pond, it presents that most Southern of head-scratchers: how to git that-there heavy and portentous thang up outta there and move it somewheres else (see Dying, As I Lay). The men are about as adroit with that project as Atlas' firecracker kids are with theirs.
There are plenty of other animals in these stories: a caiman, a moose, a nutria and, in Megan Mayhew Bergman's "The Cow That Milked Herself," a whole veterinarian's clinic full of beasts. These surround a pregnant woman, and Bergman's story picks up a recurring motif in this year's New Stories: mothers and wombs and children. It's a refreshing change from the whiskey-soaked patriarchy that still dominates Southern literature.
What hasn't changed much is color. There is only one non-white author in this bunch of 24: Danielle Evans. Algonquin is surely aware of the disproportion and presumably wants to correct it, but that hasn't happened yet. This area is built largely on African-American culture (and, increasingly, on Latino and Asian culture); when will this annual collection begin to reflect that?
Race isn't the only way in which New Stories seems a bit out of step. In all these 360 pages, no one seems to own a computer, let alone use the Internet. (In one story, there is actually a typewriter repairman.) That may be because many writers practice a proud disdain of new media, but it's weird to read so many stories so stubbornly resistant to modern life.
Perhaps that is all the legacy of what we call the Southern Gothic, which is already antiquated by definition. In a strange way, one of the most natural, unforced stories in this broadly enjoyable collection is George Singleton's quick, plainspoken "Columbarium," in which a woman (from the very un-Southern town of Worcester, Mass.) dies of "flat-out boredom, disdain, crankiness, ennui, tendonitis." As the title suggests (a columbarium is a place where cinerary urns are kept), rather than embarking upon a great Faulknerian interring of the coffin, her surly husband just has her cremated. Singleton's clean, almost acid prose cuts through the molasses of traditional, slow-cooked Southern lit.
Yet at least one story gives assurances that the Old South is still going strong. Wendell Berry's "A Burden" is a deceptively complex character study of an old drunk named Uncle Peach, the burden of the title, who is passed down through three generations of the Catlett family. But Uncle Peach is, in fact, what holds that family together and gives them their day in Berry's sun. In just 11 pages of comic yarn, he depicts a mature family tree. "Their stories," Berry writes, "all are added finally into one story. They were bound together in a many-stranded braid beyond the power of any awl to pick apart."
That is a fine enough line, but an even better passage appears earlier in "A Burden":
Marce was a man driven to small economies, which his artistry made elegant. He once built a new feed barn exactly on the site of the old one, tearing down the old one, reusing its usable lumber as he built the new one, and his mules never spent a night out of their own stalls. His precise fitting of force to work, his neat patches and splices... [His son] learned these things as a boy, and all the latter part of his life he thought and dreamed of them, as of precious possessions lost.
That short portion describes not just the labor of Marce Catlett but that of the author himself (his elegant artistry, "his precise fitting of force to work"). The best Southern literature takes the old, scarred and heavy burdens and renders them precisely, fittingly. In "A Burden," Berry shows youngsters and Northern arrivistes alike how it's still done down here.