'New Stories from the South' are new indeed

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 21, 2008

“New Stories from the South,” edited by ZZ Packer. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2008. 428 pp. $14.95.By Cynthia Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
When I worked in a bookstore, I absolutely loved the fall season. This is when some of the most interesting titles appear. It is also when “New Stories from the South” is released.
This annual collection features some of the best short stories from Southern authors. It has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager. I used to sneak a peek at the new edition when it arrived at the store each year. Some people get excited about the September issue of Vogue; I get excited about the fall crop of book releases.
This year’s edition is unlike any of the previous editions. ZZ Packer edited “New Stories from the South 2008.” It is her first time at the helm, and she brings a fresh perspective to the collection. She hooked me with her introduction titled “The Double Indemnity of the South.”
If you find Southern culture fascinating, as I do, you should definitely not skip the introduction. It is an interesting look at the real South. It also sets the stage for the stories. This is a collection of stories from the New South. The distinction between the New South and the Old South is the key to understanding this collection.
This year’s stories feature some very modern problems. Ron Rash’s “Back of Beyond” captures the current meth crisis with such poignancy and pain that the story seems timeless. Rash focuses on the dysfunctional family rather than the drug. As a result, he depicts both very well. These two main elements of the story work in perfect tandem.
Karen Bender’s “Candidate” also features a very modern situation. The candidate in the story is involved in a nasty campaign for the state legislature. His opponent is a lesbian, and his focus is on family values. When he knocks on the door of Diane Bernstein, he faces a woman wanting more than simple soundbites. She questions his hatred and his values.
“Candidate” is one of my favorite stories in the collection. The characters are well-crafted and thought-provoking. Action occurs at just the right moments to move the story along, and Bender uses flashbacks to reveal important details. Overall, this is a great story. It features the right amount of quirkiness and drama to be a Southern story. “Candidate” also seems particularly apropos given the recent political season.
In many ways, this could be a disjointed collection. It includes meth addicts, gang members, teenage mothers and thieves. The settings range from suburban neighborhoods to lonely highways. Yet it all works together to form a cohesive collection. Regardless of the story, character seems to be the key element. The collection of characters is impressive. Each author has taken great care in crafting his characters. They provide a fun, quirky mix of humor and tragedy.
Some of the highlights:
Clyde Edgerton’s “The Great Speckled Bird” has compelling characters. Edgerton says the story started as a tribute to Flannery O’Connor, but it seems like much more than that. It did take on a life of its own. This story is the basis of the novel, “The Bible Salesman.”
R.T. Smith’s “Wretch Like Me” is the one story with a nod to the Old South. It tells the story of the Old South’s demise in microcosm. At first the story seems like an anomaly in the collection, but it also serves as a bridge between the South of classic literature and this more modern collection.
For entertainment and emotion, David James Poissant’s “Lizard Man” can’t be beat. The characters are enthralling, and the visual imagery is incredible.
“New Stories from the South 2008” offers a fresh perspective on Southern literature. The collection is filled with an interesting mix of characters and settings. No two stories are even close to being alike. ZZ Packer has compiled a fantastic mix. I’m actually a bit sorry I finished the book. Now I have to wait for next year’s edition.
Cynthia Murphy is an avid reader.