Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The RisenRon Rash opens his haunting new novel with a near-mythic resurrection. She is waiting, a voice tells us, she is patient. Set free by decades of rain that wear away her grave on the banks of a creek in Sylva, North Carolina, bits of bone gather in an eddy, form a brief necklace, and what remains of a long-dead girl, wrapped in a tarp for 46 years, spills into the stream and is free.

Her name is Ligeia Mosely, a Florida runaway sent to live with her uncle and aunt to protect her from “bad influences.” Seventeen years old with red hair, aqua eyes and a perfect complexion, she appears one day in 1969, a vision in a green bikini, at the favorite fishing spot of teenage brothers Eugene and Bill Matney.

The three share an idyllic summer of free love, beer, and Boone’s Farm (and Quaaludes and Valiums for the winsome Ligeia), until the end of September, when Bill puts her on a bus to Asheville. Or so he tells Eugene. Ligeia is never seen again—until the day her 17-year-old face graces the front page of their local newspaper, her body identified from dental records in the original missing persons report.

Rash, known for his fine-tuned, lapidary short stories (Burning Bright, Nothing Gold Can Stay) and lyrical novels (Serena, The Cove, Under the Waterfall), has reined in his usual style for The Risen, a spare and sinuous murder mystery unveiled through a disquietingly elusive narrative and a fast-moving plot.

The setting is a sleepy hamlet outside of Asheville where Eugene and Bill, now in their 60s, have remained though their lives have wildly diverged. In chapters that alternate between the present investigation and vivid flashbacks, Eugene recalls early life with their widowed mother and grandfather, a tyrannical World War I veteran and country MD who runs their lives with an iron hand.

Light years away from the hippie movement and its music and drug culture, Sylva’s inhabitants glimpse the Vietnam War and civil rights protests from a distance, remembers Eugene, “as if we peered into a telescope at some alien world.” Bill, “the golden boy,” is groomed to be a surgeon, while Eugene, lacking his brother’s hand-eye coordination and his grandfather’s favor, tilts toward literature, where his true talent lies.

As Eugene reviews his memories of that long-ago summer, truth and fiction overlap from the start, when “Ligeia’s ability to appear or disappear seemed magical.” Bill disputes Eugene’s initial sighting of the skinny-dipping siren at the pond, joking that maybe Eugene as been “getting into Grandfather’s closet,” where the prescription drugs are stored, a cool foreshadowing of events to come.

Piecing together the often spooky elements of his grandfather’s powerful reign, Eugene reveals the old man’s menacing legacy in the smoke and mirrors surrounding Ligeia’s disappearance. From battlefield stories to deathbed confessions, a tangled family history of lies, secrets, and blackmail attests to the cruelty he and his brother met at their grandfather’s hands, as well as what was meted out to others.

But the story emerges from unreliable sources. Eugene, once a promising writer and teacher, is now the town drunk, a man chiefly remembered for having caused the near fatal car crash that left his young daughter scarred and walking with a limp for the rest of her life. The alcohol that once enabled him to feel “braver, stronger,” Eugene recalls, brought forth a darker side: “The suffusing glow freed something in me … though perhaps summoned is a more honest word.”

Bill, who at 18 had no qualms about lying, cheating on his girlfriend, and slut-shaming Ligeia, is now a successful surgeon with a spotless reputation, “a good man, compassionate, generous,” beloved by all, including Eugene’s wife and daughter, whom he rescued from Eugene’s destructive cycle.

“Always the better brother and ever to be,” Eugene calls Bill, despite the fact that each time new evidence arises—courtesy of the sheriff who questions Eugene about his involvement in the murder—his brother offers a different version of Ligeia’s last day alive. Nor has Eugene ever told the truth about what happened one afternoon with Ligeia when Bill was nowhere around.

Not surprisingly, in this story studded with false memories, unreliable testimony, and moral ambiguity, there are no innocent victims. As conniving as she is seductive, Ligeia plays Eugene like the Bugtussle hick he is, extracting drugs and favors while flattering him and schooling him on sex and the ’60s underground music he craves.

Ron Rash (photo: Ulf Andersen)

Ron Rash (photo: Ulf Andersen)

The era is lavishly cataloged, from Ligeia’s love beads to her Jefferson Airplane t-shirt (“That’s a music group?” Eugene asks her), from head shops to commune life, from Strawberry Hill wine to shotgunning a joint. As always, Rash has aced his period homework: Ligeia throws around more authentic drug and hippie slang than I’ve heard since my junior year in high school.

Some of the author’s most enduring themes are at play here, particularly the classism that divides his mountain communities, seen in the old doctor’s refusal to treat the local welfare recipients, and in his Mephistophelian control over the less fortunate: his daughter-in-law, grandsons, secretary, handyman and anyone else who comes within striking distance of this Appalachian Mr. Potter.

The prospect of murder haunts the book in many forms, both real and metaphorical: a willful drowning in the bottle, the aborting of potential, the denial of love and erasing of second chances. “The Risen” asks thorny questions about family and freedom of choice and whether some lives are worth more than others — and if so, and if so, does the end ever justify the means?

In one of Rash’s strongest, most evocative novels to date, life offers messy, complicated truths. They appear and disappear, forcing us to look more deeply beneath the surface, to places where “the hard rains come and the creek rises and quickens, and more of the bank peels off … bringing to light another layer of dark earth.”

.

Ron Rash appears Saturday Sept. 3 at 11:15 at the First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary, 308 Clairmont Ave., where he’ll be joined by Teresa Weaver to talk about The Risen.

Read Full Post »

Miss JaneNot much scares Jane Chisholm, the heroine of Brad Watson’s eloquently homespun second novel, Miss Jane. Not snakes, disease, chickens, cows, coyotes, panthers, screech owls, wild dogs, cyclones, hail, lightning, “the hatchet used to decapitate the chickens,” not her mother’s “harsh and dark words,” or even the devil or hell.

Born in 1915 with a rare genital defect that renders her ill-suited for marriage or motherhood, the only thing that bothers Jane is “the vexation of her own incontinence.” In a community in which “she was the only one made the way she was made,” she meets life with grace and wonder, “determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could.”

Jane’s rural homestead lies just outside of Mercury, the fictional version of Meridian, Mississippi, where Watson grew up (and the setting for his first novel, Heaven of Mercury). Jane’s mother, Ida, and father, Sylvester, are nearly 40 and, having already lost three children, had not planned to have another. Jane is the result of a moonshine-n’-laudanum night of “sin and abomination” that leads them to suspect her handicap is their punishment.

Fortunately, the local doctor who delivers Jane, Ed Thompson, advises her parents on how to care for her and, when she’s old enough, assures Jane that she’s a “normal little girl” whose body “didn’t get to finish itself up and get everything right” before she was born. His support and close attention help the family accept her, and in letters exchanged with his colleague, the nature of her condition is gradually made plain. Thompson periodically arranges for Jane to be examined, but the surgery to correct her abnormality has yet to be developed.

Watson, who based Jane on his great-aunt, Mary Ellis Clay, could have written her as a hopelessly isolated child, a freakish outsider. After all, she’s not like other children. She’s surrounded by sorrow and defeat—a mother damaged by the death of a beloved son at age 3; a father whose drinking increases as the Depression takes its toll on his farm and store; and an unhappy older sister described by Dr. Thompson as a “wildcat tethered to that family and her duties as if to a tree by a pulled-taut chain.”

Brad-_Oxford_photo

Brad Watson

But the South of Miss Jane isn’t the gritty, grotesque South of Harry Crews or even the afflicted, Southern Gothic world of Flannery O’Connor (although this story could be a metaphor for O’Connor’s life). Watson, also the author of two short-story collections, has more in common with writers like Ron Rash or Amy Greene, whose nuanced portraits of Appalachia illustrate the struggle between human decency and the costs of survival. His “country folk” are complex and vulnerable, their stoicism and outer coldness a response to events beyond their control.

Despite being made differently,  Jane is neither freak nor misfit. Instead, Watson paints her as exactly what the good doctor insists she is: a regular little girl. “A fairly solitary and independent little sprite” with a “prodigiously contemplative disposition,” she’s most at home in the woods and meadows, places where she feels “as if nothing could be unnatural … within but apart from the world.”

Inquisitive, resilient, and independent, Jane embraces the mysteries and marvels of nature: “mushrooms and their dry or slimy tops and delicate stems and gills beneath their caps”; the mating habits of pigs and roosters; “bone-jarring thunder, lightning that made everything for an instant like the inside of a vast glass bowl of bright blue light”; even her sister’s face as she makes love with a neighbor boy, “eyes locked on her own, looking straight to where she was hiding.”

And despite the lack of affection in her family, Jane’s young heart opens to the rare exception. A “little one-armed hug” from her father during a fishing trip is “an expression of sentiment so rare in their household” that it brings her to tears, “which she hid by walking away and picking wildflowers on the little hill above the pond and bringing them back to him.”

“How is it a child comes out like this’n?” her father asks Dr. Thompson; her mother consults a psychic, only to be told that Jane will never be “normal, like other girls,” but she’ll be happy: “Unlike you.” This investigation of normal is at the heart of Watson’s novel: The pity Jane’s fate should inspire never quite fits with her steadfast defiance of Thompson’s worry that she’ll end up “living a long life of isolation and shame.”

During an era when a woman’s purpose was marriage, sex, and children, Jane’s life is anything but barren. While everyone around her wishes she could be fixed, Jane is busy finding happiness wherever it beckons. As time goes by, she attends school, reads precociously (Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart”), goes to barn dances (as Watson’s great-aunt was said to do), works in the family store, and has a boyfriend with whom she experiences a fragile but lasting love.

Significantly, few of the characters in Miss Jane fully inhabit traditional roles. Ida, “cantankerous” mother of four, has always felt pregnancy as “[her body] taking itself away from her again.” Dr. Thompson and his wife can’t have children, nor can the sharecropper couple whose lovemaking Jane spies on with such guilty pleasure. Her sister Grace spurns a future as a farm wife to work unconventional jobs; Jane herself wishes she could fix a tractor or hammer out a horseshoe; compared to sewing and sweeping, “men’s work seemed like freedom.”

Peacocks make several appearances throughout the book, “otherworldly birds” frequently depicted in shimmering, near-mythological scenes. Toward the end, these “oddly beautiful” creatures flock to Jane “as if they sensed the presence of someone they found familiar”—as strange as they are, Jane is more so. Yet her fearless acceptance of what sets her apart is profoundly human, and her lifelong struggle to understand her place in the world reflects the intricate workings of our own mysterious hearts.

.

Other books by Brad Watson include Last Days of the Dog-Men: Stories (2001), The Heaven of Mercury (2002), Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives: Stories (2010). A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution July 10.

 

Read Full Post »

Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.

Here they are in order of publication dates:

January

Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young

This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)

 

The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan

Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)

 

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard

Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)

 

Shame and Wonder, David Searcy

In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)

 

February

What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light

Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)

 

Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce

Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob MarleySeven years after her acclaimed novel, Strange as this Weather Has BeenAnn Pancake returns with a bravura collection of short fiction, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley.

In two novellas and nine stories largely set in her native West Virginia, Pancake explores the consequences of one of the most brutal industries in America — coal mining — and its collateral damage: poverty, drug abuse, domestic abuse, suicide, child neglect, alcoholism and violence.

What a joy it is to hear her wild, true-blue voice again. Now based in Seattle, Pancake grew up in Romney, a town that in so many ways — all of them portrayed here, in these keenly felt tales about the loss of Appalachian identity and culture — she has never left.

The book opens with “In Such Light,” a novella about a troubled college freshman desperate to escape her rural background. Home for the summer, by day, Janie’s a “popcorn girl” at a once-glamorous theater; by night she hangs out with her mentally disabled uncle Bobby and his neighbor, a local bad-boy with a mean streak Janie mistakes for sensitivity.

Though she relies on Bobby for company, his freakish behavior and peculiar speech patterns embarrass Janie, who sees in them reflections of her own limitations. In both characters, Pancake hints at the damning legacy of Big Coal’s greed and waste. Janie’s impressions of the still functioning parts of her uncle’s brain, though, evoke an enduring ethos no amount of environmental devastation can wipe out:

“Some parts had melted in the heat … tarnished and clotted together like clock guts after a fire — the part that did numbers, the part that managed cause and effect, the part that gauged how funny things really were — while other parts in that dark crowded space still gleamed and whirred, unscathed — the part that could sustain a conversation, the part sensitive to her grandmother’s tireless social skill drills, the part that remembered things.”

As the weeks pass, her uncle’s poignant search for companionship and love reconcile Janie to values buried deep in their shared past. Their relationship, like so many others in Me and My Daddy, echoes the characters’ unbreakable attachment to the land and to family.

All of Pancake’s characters undergo some form of haunting. In the endearing “Mouseskull,” 10-year-old Lainey wears the still-decaying titular skull round her neck as an amulet against the ghosts that haunt her family home, with its “few rooms that comfort, many that scare” — including the one her grandfather killed himself in several years earlier. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Almost Famous Women for blog“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”

Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.

The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.

Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.

In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Love Me BackOnce you get past the jittery, voyeuristic stranger-sex in the prologue to Love Me Back, the narrator’s plight is so touching that you think, in answer to the title’s request, Of course I will.

A naive teenager named Marie finds work as a waitress to help support herself after getting pregnant and marrying a boy she has known for only five days. A valedictorian who has already met with her Yale professors, 17-year-old Marie trades her dream of attending seminary for the anxieties of breastfeeding, child-rearing and her fear of doing it all wrong.

To quell those worries, Marie throws herself into mastering the art of the good server at a series of restaurants, beginning with the Olive Garden. She learns “how to sweep aggressively and efficiently… how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is.” She learns “how to use work to forget.”

But forgetting, as author Merritt Tierce makes plain in this ferocious debut novel, takes a lethal amount of effort, and what began as a poignant glimpse of a teen mother careens into an inescapable train wreck we can’t look away from for the next 200 pages. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Ugly GirlsOn the face of it, the two teenage rebels in Ugly Girls (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel, are no different from a lot of girls their age. For Dayna (aka Baby Girl) and Perry, getting into trouble is the key to feeling alive.

Fun means taking risks, the more outrageous the better, proving to each other how cool they are. They vent their frustrations and emotional turmoil in defiance and petty crimes, and we first meet them in medias res: They’ve stolen a car and are joyriding down the highway before dawn, blasting their music and talking trash.

Best friends since they were kids, Perry and Baby Girl’s long-standing relationship provides a lot of things — solidarity, reassurance, one-upmanship and entertainment — but affection and trust are no longer part of it. “They didn’t talk, really, they just did.” Their go-nowhere lives have chained them together, and the small triumphs they enjoy over each other each day are the only ones they have.

Their battle for top dog leaves them achingly vulnerable. When a strange boy begins to play them against each other via email and Facebook, it’s not long before what’s left of their friendship begins to self-destruct, spiraling toward chaos. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »