Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
Reviewed by Barbara Ladd, Department of English, Emory University, Atlanta
That's What I like (About the South) and Other New Southern Stories for the Nineties, ed. George Garrett and Paul Ruffin. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1993, 409 pp., $34.95 (cloth).
George Garrett and Paul Ruffin state that their purpose in putting together this collection is to capture some of the complexity of contemporary southern fiction. To do so, they decided to solicit original stories from as many southern writers as they could find, with the stipulation (the desire to stipulate) that each story should be original and should be chosen by the author as the story to represent him or her in a collection devoted to challenging the "old-fashioned, shrugging, weary defini tions" being tossed around about southern literature. But nothing works out according to plan-especially if an anthology is planned. Some of the stories (some of the best stories) in this collection were published elsewhere: Madison Smartt Bell's closing essay was written for Chronicles, and some of the stories seem more like illustrations of the old cliches than challenges to them. There are a number of excellent stories as well-Kelly Cherry's "The Hungarian Countess," Madison Smartt Bell's "Hammerhead," Eve Shelnutt's "Distance," and David Madden's "The Last Bizarre Tale." There are others.
Fred Chappell, in the introduction, addresses (with some mischievous intent) "the defining characteristics of Southern fiction" as "deep involvement in place, family bonds, celebration of eccentricity, a strong narrative voice, themes of racial guilt and human endurance, local tradition, a sense of impending loss, a pervasivesense of humor in the face of tragedy, an inability to leave the past behind," and adds to it another quality-"the Southern writer is likely to be set upon by some imp of the perverse so that he or she wishes to rebel against tradition" (8). Now I do not know where this definition first appeared, in R. H. W. Dillard's short story "That's What I Like (About the South)" or in Chappell's introduction or somewhere else, but Dillard's story-each section headed by one of the above characteristics of southern literature-is a hilariously perverse account of a guy named Shirley, his girlfriend named Roy, and their ideological (i.e., romantic) travels through a southern place in search of some way to redeem the past (i.e., most likely the past mistake of naming Shirley "Shirley," or so it seems to me). On the journey toward resolution, Shirley has to confront family bonds, eccentrics of various sorts, racial guilt, and so on. There is, as one might expect, "a strong narrative voice" in this story, and clearly the "imp of the perverse" is alive and well in the South long after Poe.
The strongest narrative voices in this collection are the ones that do resist through humor, parody, or some sort of determined perversity-the "defining characteristics of Southern fiction." R. H. W. Dillard's story is certainly one of these; Fred Chappell's "Ancestors" is another. (What would you do if one of your Civil War ancestors came for an extended visit?) William Harrison's "The Magician of Soweto," significantly placed in another "South," is one of the few stories in this collection that deals, to any great extent, with race and probably ought to be read within that context. There are many stories (too many for my taste) about crazy women and no count men; precocious and doomed children; boredom and desperation; a lot of resignation-in other words, everything readers have come to expect in country music and southern fiction. Madison Smartt Bell's closing essay is surprising to the extent that it offers a good deal of gentle criticism that is applicable to some of the stories that precede it in this anthology. It is an excellent essay in which he plugs Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor and Elizabeth Spencer-none of whom appear in the collection-and offers an interesting discussion of the very different uses of time in Welty and Taylor. He, too, resists the label "Southern" as it has been used, choosing to talk instead about "regionalism" and to talk about it in an interesting way, not as a synonym for "minor literature," but within the context of "moral isolation" and its capacity to "counterbalance ... the powerful waves of homogenization which keep sweeping the country" (402). If, he suggests, the label "Southern," with its connotations of "being in the nation, but not of it," strikes contemporary writers like David Madden and Richard Ford as increasingly irrelevant, "the reason may be that American political life is now able to offer a strong dose of disillusionment, disenfranchisement even, to all Americans" (403). Even so, fiction written by southerners, set in the South, dealing with southern characters and southern contexts, is still, in the words of George Garrett, "alive and kicking and going off in all kinds of directions as this old century staggers to an end" (vii).