Don Noble
2:08 pm
Mon May 28, 2007

The Bear Bryant Funeral Train

This volume, and its accompanying critical material, might serve as a basis for some fruitful discussion about what is happening in new fiction in America.

In September of 2005, it seemed Brad Vice had it made. His story collection The Bear Bryant Funeral Train had won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. The book was published and was in bookstores everywhere, waiting to be bought. And then the storm broke. It was noticed that some of the sentences in Vice's story "Tuscaloosa Knights" (with a K), in fact the first few sentences, were almost exactly the same as some sentences in Carl Carmer's chapter "Tuscaloosa Nights" (with an N) in Stars Fell on Alabama.

Vice was accused of plagiarism, and within three weeks the prize had been withdrawn and the book recalled and pulped. It has to be the fastest rush to literary judgment in American history.

What Vice's attackers, in their undue haste, failed to consider was that Vice, born in DCH and raised in Northport, had been educated in the English Department at UA and at the University of Cincinnati in the theories and techniques of postmodernism. This was not plagiarism, this was hommage, collage, playfulness.

His critics also failed to take into account that Robert Coover has written a novel called Snow White about a girl who lives with seven dwarves in a Greenwich Village basement apartment, or that John Gardner had published a book called Grendel.

Modern lit is often allusive, referential, full of borrowing. Many new literary buildings are constructed of the bricks of old literary buildings, as the stones of ancient Rome were used to erect the structures of the medieval city.

But now The Bear Bryant Funeral Train is back, phoenix-like, released by River City Publishing of Montgomery, with an explanatory Introduction by Vice and essays about the stories and the issues surrounding the controversy by Michelle Richmond, Jake Adam York, John Dufresne, and Don Noble.

This volume, and its accompanying critical material, might serve as a basis for some fruitful discussion about what is happening in new fiction in America.

In the meantime, there are the stories themselves, obviously already judged to be excellent. And they are.

Some of the stories are what Vice calls "blood and hay" stories, or "what went wrong on the farm." "Chickensnake" and "Report from Junction" are the best of these.

Several of the stories explore the father-son relationship, and "Stalin" is probably the strongest of these. Stalin was, as Kruschev's memoirs reminded us, a monster in microcosm, a monster of a father, as well as one of the greatest murderers of the twentieth century.

The two most ambitious stories are "Tuscaloosa Knights" and "The Bear Bryant Funeral Train." In "Knights," Vice revisits the 1934 of Carmer, but adds not only a lonely and rebellious wife who seeks excitement on the night of a Klan rally but also a pack of Bryce Hospital escapees. The story is clear; matters can get out of hand, out of one's control, and the madness of the KKK is mirrored and reinforced by the midnight dash to freedom of the mental patients.

"Funeral Train" is set not seventy years in the past but forty in the future, at the Vance plant, where an engineer is creating an art object, a computer-generated movie, created to look like a Super 8 film of the Bryant cortege from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham in 1983, except that all the faces from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album cover are in the crowd, as is a Grizzly Bear, a Chinese field marshall, Appalachian sin-eaters, a mule team, Idi Amin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Russian Prime Minister Andropov. The narrator tells us that even though his movie is based on a true story, the facts are not enough; this was an event of such magnitude that it might have included all these people.

Those who read and understand Vice's stories will see that this is not a school kid copying from someone else's paper or writing out the encyclopedia entry but a fine example of the most ingenious and playful contemporary fiction.

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