Mon December 19, 2005
Dancing by the River
A third collection of Faulkner-style stories from an "impressive young writer."
By Don Noble
After a fine debut book of stories, The Dry Well, in 2001, and a novel, A Broken Thing, chronicling a failed marriage, in 2003, Marlin ?Bart? Barton is back again with a new book of stories, Dancing by the River.
This talented young man is building a career.
There are 12 stories in this collection, and most of them are set in Barton?s fictionalized Forkland, Alabama, which he calls Riverfield.
The title story sets the tone for many of them.
The main character, Seth, is visiting a roadhouse, a real honky-tonk strip joint, with Susan, who insists she wants to see what such a place is like.
It is, alas, just as the reader expects: nasty, smoky, alcoholic, sad, verging on disgusting. Life in Riverfield is not quite a Hobbesian state of nature?nasty, brutish, and short?but it is mostly narrow, brutish, and boring.
This same Seth is the central character in a couple of other stories as well.
In ?Meaning Business,? he is so distraught over his failing marriage to Juanita that he gets drunk at this same roadhouse and then, just to feel something, gets into a fight with two men who obligingly beat him up.
After a few more drinks, he drives his own truck into the river and then, failing to drown, borrows a truck from his buddy George and crashes it.
Still he doesn?t die.
Suicide for the young and hearty is just not that easy, it seems.
Some few years ago Bart Barton published a very funny story called, I think, ?Chicken Drop,? and he reprises some of that material here in ?Falling.?
A much-anticipated local event is the Belmont Chicken Drop, where live chickens are tossed from a small airplane and learn to fly on their way down.
Attached to the legs of one is a coupon for first prize, four nights in Gulf Shores, all expenses paid. Seth feels that if he can catch the prize chicken and win, he and Juanita can save their marriage.
He can?t and they don?t.
Barton?s stories of Riverfield and his Demopolis, called Demarville, are of a piece.
He is creating, in fiction after fiction, a large and what will be a comprehensive picture of life in a particular place. Barton is not yet Faulkner, but the same impulse is at work: to make a fictional world, one?s own ?postage stamp? of literary territory, with recurring themes and multiple generations of the same families in the same place.
In fact, several of the characters from his first collection, The Dry Well, appear in this book as well.
The Confederate cavalryman Rafe Anderson has a story here, told as he is returning to Alabama very near the end of the war. And his descendants, the three generations of 20th-century Andersons, are the figures in several of these tales.
In one, ?Errands,? a story which owes a little to Sherwood Anderson?s ?I Want to Know Why,? the boy is disillusioned to learn that the beloved family doctor is a drug addict.
In a couple of stories, the child learns that in his family, as in all families, there are old hurts, old grievances, and that Mom and Dad do not live in marital heaven.
Two stories in this collection take place elsewhere and thus are not overcome by the oppressive, claustrophobic rural tone of the majority.
In ?Another Story for Catherine,? perhaps my favorite, a young man at the University in Tuscaloosa has a love affair with a married older woman and discovers he is not mature enough to handle it.
And in the concluding story, another young man much like him, 24 years old and in the Army in France in 1957, is having a love affair with an older married French woman and, like the protagonist of ?Catherine,? also finds himself out of his depth.
Barton?s stories could use more humor and more energy?many of the characters seem depressed?but we have here a young writer building, slowly and carefully, an impressive body of work, and I look forward to seeing more of it.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.