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Mon November 23, 2009
"Undeniable Truths" by A. M. Garner
A.M. Garner, who has been teaching for some time in Florence, at the University of North Alabama, and before that at Virginia Commonwealth University, holds the MFA degree in fiction writing from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
By Don Noble
A.M. Garner, who has been teaching for some time in Florence, at the University of North Alabama, and before that at Virginia Commonwealth University, holds the MFA degree in fiction writing from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She has lived around the South, and she knows her South. She has a sense of humor, describes place very well, especially her Tennessee River Valley, and knows the speech of her people. "Undeniable Truths"?twelve stories, five of which have been previously published?is her first collection.
In discussing story collections, the title story is usually a good place to begin. I wondered what an "undeniable truth" was. It is, in this context, a sarcastic, wisecrack rejoinder. When you have said something your listener finds or pretends to find obvious, he may say "Is the Pope Catholic?" or something more secular concerning bears and the woods.
This story, "Undeniable Truths," is set on the Tennessee River and, like several in the volume, is a story of love and heartbreak. The narrator, a newspaper reporter who drinks too much, loves Cissy Pruitt. Through jealous madness he has lost her and wants her back, desperately. He is in constant pain, and like many of Garner's distressed men?and most of her protagonists and narrators are men?drinks too much. He also wrecks his buddy's boat and nearly kills his dog. Cissy is a fanatical ecologist and animal rights activist and the only way back to her is through the Green Party. But as Percy Sledge sings in this story, "When a man loves a woman," he'll do anything. Undeniable truth.
The lead story, "Leaving" is also a good one. The protagonist, Mobile Pettway, has been trying to get away from tiny Tocqueville, Alabama for years. Pettway is dead in love with Madeleine. He finally convinces her to go off with him, to France, to a little village near Mont Blanc. There the couple, finally out of small-town Alabama, are happy. They enjoy the quiet village, the local food, their few friends. Each day is much like the last. This place will be their new home, and even Pettway and Madeleine get the gentle irony. It's a lot like Tocqueville, Alabama.
The longest story, "Waiting" is also a love story. The protagonist, Adam, a retired archaeologist, lost his true love Ellen and has not seen her in 30 years. Then one day, seeing her at a crafts fair, he does and will do anything to achieve a reunion. She is a semi-retired journalist, consumed by the story of the trial of the murderers of a gay young man and by the murders of two neighbor women.
This story, a novella really, involves action, violence, firearms, and bad guys as well as love, and ends with what I take to be an homage to Barry Hannah: " I don't really know how much longer I've got in this world. I'm crazy about this woman. I think it might be love." "Waiting," at 46 pages, suggests that Garner will and should write a novel. In fact, I found the longer stories much more satisfying than the short ones. Garner's strengths seem to lie in a relaxed realism, developing slowly. The shorter stories, including one narrated by a ghost, I found less satisfying. But that is surely a matter of personal taste.
The last story is a reworking of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," but set on Garner's Tennessee River. The Villain, the Montressor to be walled up, as one might guess, wronged the woman the protagonist loved and there must be revenge. He is lured through vanity, in this case expertise in moonshine, not amontillado. The title, "Bluesville," could be the title of many of these, for music, literally or thematically, is present in many of these stories, and in "The Mayor of Nowhere," a Hank Williams figure even makes an appearance at a pleasingly described overnight fishing trip. A group of friends goes to the river, camps out, sets trot lines, grapples for catfish, drinks, talks, and makes music. It made me want to be there.
A.M. Garner knows how to write fiction and I am looking forward to her next book.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."