Southern Haunting Book explores the ghosts of joy and lossBy Jordan Adair
The Cry of an Occasion : Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers edited by Richard Bausch (LSU Press, 222 pages, $29.95).
Something haunts me about these stories. Pain balanced by pleasure, confession resulting in conversion, anger soothed by joy, violence mitigated by compassion, time lost and ultimately regained -- all of these themes ooze from the pages of this intriguing, troubling and richly varied volume of stories from members of The Fellowship of Southern Writers. You'll find a son writing a dictionary and wrestling with the image of a violent father (The Encyclopedia Daniel by Fred Chappell); a daughter dying and seeing the ghost of her mother and aunt (Three Ghosts by Doris Betts); a young girl in Nashville who is tired of her mother's oppressive treatment and strikes back, only to lose something precious in the process (Losses by Walter Sullivan); and a story of abandonment told by an angry, violent-tempered man who struggles with the nature of his own memories (About Loving Women by Ellen Douglas). Well-written and using intriguing narrative techniques, these imaginative storytellers have painted a vast and vivid landscape.
Indeed, the stories in The Cry of an Occasion travel the strange and at times bewildering roads of the South through the richly textured voices of an extraordinary group of writers. It is difficult to even begin to categorize these stories as exclusively Southern, so universal are their themes. Established in 1989, the Fellowship of Southern Writers, Louis D. Rubin, Jr. writes, wanted the work of young Southern authors to be read and evaluated and recognized by other Southern writers for whom the region and the subject matter would not seem quaint' or exotic'. . .we wanted to recognize and encourage only work of the highest quality, free from insularity and localism.
With that goal in mind, they have succeeded in escaping the charge so frequently leveled at Southern fiction, that it's too specifically local to have much of an impact outside the bounds of the South. The lineup in this volume is a formidable one including luminaries like Barry Hannah, Madison Smartt Bell, George Garrett, Shelby Foote, Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith. You can't really go wrong with any one of them, but several can serve as an indication of the high quality of what you will find.
In Tombstone, by Lewis Nordan, the narrator, who lives in Pittsburgh and whose name we never learn, tells of receiving a package from a friend down South that contains a black and white photograph of a graveyard in Mississippi where some of the grave markers were hand made. Seems innocuous enough. However, from this single event, Nordan weaves a story of the memory of a deeply imbedded pain that the photograph triggers, the suicide 14 years earlier of the narrator's son. In one of the many admissions he makes in this confessional tale, he tells us, After a child commits suicide, you finally figure out that no one is safe, anything can happen, that we're all alone in the world. And that's only the beginning of what he learns.
Allan Gurganus, in his story Reassurance, quotes Walt Whitman's letter Death of a Pennsylvania Soldier (from Specimen Days) as the launching point for an epistolary narrative written by a dead soldier to his mother, and sent from beyond the grave. Using the Whitman letter as the foundation for some of what Frank Irwin, the dead soldier, writes to his mother, Gurganus serves up yet another powerfully confessional piece and creates an imaginative blending of truth and fiction. The beauty of the story rests in how Gurganus shapes Frank's letter as he writes of the distant past, his own wounding, and his desire to alleviate some of the suffering he knows his mother must endure at his death. We soon find out just how intertwined these two letters are, for Frank writes, His [Whitman's] letter makes this one possible.
The Secret Garden by William Hoffman uses multiple narrators to tell the story of Rachel, a woman who has a measurable, at times profound, impact on the people in her life. The story covers most of that life, from childhood to the present old age, but does so in a non-linear fashion. Hoffman uses this narrative pattern to maximum effect by shifting between the narrators, who come from the various parts of Rachel's life and who reveal the details that the reader must piece together.
In one of the most intriguing stories in the collection, Life Prerecorded by Jill McCorkle, the narrator, a Mrs. Porter, tells us, When I quit smoking I dreamed of cigarettes. And when I was awake, cigarettes seemed omnipresent. They were everywhere: dangling from lips, burning in ashtrays. The story then proceeds to explore the almost clairvoyant connection she has with anything related to cigarettes, anything she can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear. All five senses get rolled into one obsessive exploration of her life through both dreams and reality. From her first cigarette to her first dream, her first period, her first pregnancy and the C-section delivery of her first child, McCorkle weaves a mesmerizing mixture of elements that brings her protagonist full circle and gives her some sense of closure. We're left with the image of a young girl holding a cigarette in her hand, but we have no idea where her dreams will take her. And so, we drift into our own dreams.