Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe IV

May 15, 2006

Brewer's series of books are a true grab bag--fiction, nonfiction, poetry-some of it reprinted and some of it original, and, of course, some of the thirty-two pieces are wonderful, some not.

As the title indicates, this is volume four in the series of collections of Southern writing Sonny Brewer is editing. Blue Moon books are meant to compete with the annual New Stories from the South volumes edited by Shannon Ravenel and put out by Algonquin, but there are important differences.

The Ravenel books are all fiction, all selected from the past year's magazines and journals. Brewer?s are a true grab bag--fiction, nonfiction, poetry--some of it reprinted and some of it original, and, of course, some of the thirty-two pieces are wonderful, some not.

Since Brewer, the author recently of the very fine novel The Poet of Tolstoy Park, lives and works in Fairhope, Alabama, many are by Alabamians.

The funniest piece in the volume is the story "A Full Boat" by Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish and The Watermelon King. "A Full Boat" is a conversation between a thirty-three-year-old son and his one-legged father who used to participate in poker games in which the players bet body parts. There was a surgeon in attendance. Payment was immediate.

Rick Bragg has contributed what I take to be a nonfiction letter of heartfelt condolence to a friend who has had his beloved dog stolen. Diane McWhorter has contributed a piece called "Talk" first published in the American Scholar. This article is about, of course, the crucial social and humanizing value of conversation, especially but not exclusively in the South.

Suzanne Hudson, who can be very funny when she chooses, is represented here by "The Thing with Feathers," a molestation story of incest and revenge.

Mac Walcott, an architect in Fairhope, has a piece about the funeral of his beloved she-goat Shadow. Walcott insists that Shadow the goat knows love. I'll have to take his word for that. Janet Nodar has a story entitled "Rehab," from the point of view of a very old, dying man, facing his mortality, who says, "I wish I'd been kinder to my wife. Her little wants were no less important than mine." Enough said.

Jeff McNeil's story, "Jimmy the Playwright Begins to Slur," is a goofy story of drunken neighbors in a conversation so absurd one suggests they should start a religion.

There are a couple of essays here that are especially good. One, by Ellen Douglas, is advice for writers. To oversimplify: one must witness, that is, pay attention, and "frame, to give what we observe a form." The result, then, is "bearing witness." She has embedded in her essays some wry stories, examples of the raw materials from which fiction can be fashioned.

Perhaps because I was so taken with singer Marshall Chapman's Nashville memoir, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller, I was disappointed with her short story, "Joe and Sheila." Chapman is not yet a fiction writer.

I was perhaps excessively delighted by the piece by eighty-two-year-old chef and food critic Robert St. John entitled "Chitlins." After 42 years living in Southern Mississippi, he eats some chitlins-and he hates them! They have a distinct funk, which takes hours of bathing to wash away. He says it was a trip to nasal hell. And they taste like they smell. How refreshing. Usually, food writers, like TV personality Anthony Bourdain, eat bizarre foods like cobra hearts and announce they are ambrosia.

"Our Uncle Willem Stanfield," by Howard Bahr, which leads off the volume, is an original and affecting tale. Uncle Willem, a brain-injured survivor of World War II, cuts up and buries his beloved car in a large septic tank. It is sad and funny.

Also sad and funny is "The Freddies," by M. O. Walsh. Here, an alcoholic grandson, Frederick the Third, persona non grata, who is also taking painkillers for the kidney stones he is passing, attempts to attend the funeral of his grandfather, Frederick the First. He is rebuffed by everyone except his grandmother, who does understand him, crazy as he may be.

A long piece by the Yugoslav-American poet Charles Simic should probably be required reading for all Southerners. He traveled around the South two years ago visiting Hale County and Montgomery in Alabama, and Clarksdale and Jackson, Mississippi, and a dozen other places, and sees them with an outsider?s eye. It is not good news.

He reports on the rural poverty and the dead, post-apocalyptic downtowns that we have, perhaps, stopped noticing. Traveling from town to town, he reads the letters to the editors and listens to the call-in talk radio shows.

He hears a frightening fundamentalism and homophobia. "kepticism, empirical evidence, and book learning are in low esteem," he writes. The "ideal, as a shrewd young fellow told me in Tuscaloosa, is unquestioning obedience and complete conformity in matters of religion and politics." Many of us in the South are like fish who have stopped noticing the water we swim in.