Don Noble
10:08 am
Mon July 2, 2007

A Cast of Characters and Other Stories

From the editor of "Stories from the Blue Moon Caf?," another anthology has been released, with a twist: it also includes non-Southern writers.

The "Stories from the Blue Moon Caf?" series began in 2002, with thirty pieces included and the subtitle "An Anthology of Southern Writers." Over the years, the project has morphed. This most recent version is smaller in a couple of ways. Included are only fourteen pieces, and the publisher, MacAdam/Cage, has gone to the old Algonquin Books format. About 5" x 7" in size, A Cast of Characters can be slipped into a pocket and carried around and read just anywhere. And it deserves to be.

Another change is the inclusion of non-Southerners. "Holiday," by Tom McGuane, famously of Montana, tells of two couples on vacation in the Caribbean, complete with quarrelling, adultery, and class conflict between the narrator, Clem, who works for a western power company and his host and brother-in-law, Willi, a German, who owns a record company.

There are two fishing stories in this little book. The first, "Their Ancient Glittering Eyes," by Ron Rash, is a story of a legendary freshwater sturgeon, too big to be believed, but finally seen, caught, believed, and quite rightly, released by the old coots who catch him and clearly, identify with him. The other, an essay titled "A Cast of Characters," another encomium to the beauties of Calhoun County by Rick Bragg, tells of a giant bass, seen, believed, but not catchable, at least not by Bragg.

Another piece of fine nonfiction in this volume is Frank Turner Hollon's "New York City Marathon," which is about just that. Hollon, who is a gifted and prolific fiction writer, does a beautiful job of describing a day I have no interest in: thousands of skinny people from all over the world running, sweating, drooling, fainting, for hours, through the streets of New York in their underwear. No, I can't do it and I don't want to.

The best of all in this alphabetically arranged book may be, coincidentally, the first. Howard Bahr, despite having published three novels, still does not get the attention he deserves. His story, "Coppers: 1939," describes the dying of a black man caught at the waist in the coupling between railroad cars. It begins, "He felt no pain?that was good, considering a dog was chewing his entrails." Now that is an opening sentence.

William Gay's entry here is superb and terrifying as usual. Gay, of middle Tennessee, almost always writes of men on the edge, driven just about mad by alcohol, drugs, loss, and death. His protagonist, called The Jeepster, has lost his girlfriend, Aimee, and is about to get her back, but her new man won't let her go and kills her. The Jeepster goes on a crazed rampage including what many consider to be desecrating Aimee's body. Others, like Aimee's father, think him a mad dog, without feeling. In fact, he is overwhelmed with feeling, has too many emotions in him to go on living. Faulkner did something like this many years ago in "Pantaloon in Black," and Gay's "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?" is just as good.

Tom Franklin, who works much of the same Gothic territory as William Gay, is represented here by "The Safety Man." The protagonist, Gary, has lost his wife. The story begins, "After his second affair, when his second wife left him for the second time, Gary used the setback as a reason to start drinking." You just know things for Gary will go downhill, and they do. There is a little comedy in Franklin, however, as Gary goes to therapy. He quickly joins a "Victims of Abusive Spouses" group. "The other members, all women, sobbed and choked in the church basement . . . . They said they needed time to heal, to be alone. Gary hit on them all."

This is, remember, the same Franklin who wrote Hell at the Breech and Smonk. It is an acquired taste, but I have it.

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