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Wednesday, 29 April 2009 16:57

Dispatches from the kinky South

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Surreal South: an Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry edited by Laura Benedict & Pinckney Benedict. Winston-Salem: Press 53 $19.95 – 378 pages

The co-editors of this anthology, Laura and Pinckney Benedict, know “surreal” when they see it. In fact, Pinckney, who wrote a memorable short story collection called Town Smokes in 1987 at the age of 23, easily qualifies as a connoisseur of Southern bizarre/grotesque literature. Often compared to Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote, Benedict’s work (“The Sutton Pie Safe,” for example) often appears in college textbooks and anthologies. Laura Benedict writes “Southern Gothic thrillers (Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon).

Surreal South explores a country where hot summer nights are filled with sheet lightning and mournful owls that sometimes serve as harbingers of death. This is a South filled with small towns where football players and cheerleaders acquire the status of royalty. The deceptive landscape of abandoned farms, old country stores and summer languor often conceals potential evil; an evil that may have the comic face of a clown. Let ’s sample a few stories and poems.

The source of Ron Rash’s “Corpse Bird” is that dim world of folklore that lies beneath the surface of a Southern suburbia — a place where rural farmlands and forests have been buried beneath a veneer of civilization. When Boyd Candler hears the call of the owl his ancestors called the “corpse bird,” he knows that death has come to his modern suburban street. Since his neighbors no longer believe such “superstitious nonsense,” Boyd must make a decision — one that may cost him dearly.

Robert Olen Butler’s “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” presents the dilemma of Edna Bradshaw, a lonely divorcee in Bovary, Ala. Edna finds love in the nearly deserted Wal-Mart parking lot (it closes at 9 p.m.) where she encounters Desi, an alien that has “loved her from afar” but now yearns for a “close encounter.” Should Edna abandon her little trailer (with her own propane tank) and her yellow cat, Eddie, for life in another galaxy? Is Desi’s sexual agility a sufficient basis for a lasting relationship? Most importantly, is Desi real?

“Dog Song” by Ann Pancake represents the most diverse and imaginative story in this collection. Like Faulkner’s narrative in The Sound and the Fury, “Dog Song” presents a “stream of consciousness” narrative: Matley, a brain-damaged outcast whom20the locals call Dog Man – (because he has become the guardian and breadwinner for 22 stray/abandoned dogs). Pancake’s remarkable narrative attempts to recreate Matley’s thoughts. The result is a strange blend of vivid imagery, hallucinaations and disjointed, rhythmic passages that capture Matley’s soul and a mind which has a strange, heartbreaking beauty.

For anyone who has grown up in a small southern town with a rigid social caste (townies/country kids), Benjamin Percy’s “Swans” may bring back a host of discomfiting, cruel and comical memories. Drew, the protagonist of “Swans” lives in the little town of Overall that is next to the big town of Murfreesboro. Drew and his friend, Kenny, are accustomed to being humiliated and demeaned by Murfreesboro football team. Further, they live in a constant state of adolescent shame and inadequacy when they behold Murfreesboro’s cheerleaders who sunbathe all summer on a secluded beach. However, the two inept boys are talented voyeurs. Equipped with snorkels, they learn to lurk beneath the water when the cheerleaders leap from a nearby cliff. As the bikini-clad girls drop beneath the water, they frequently lose their tops. Drew and Kenny ogle and whimper. Ah, but there is a disruptive force at the lake — one that threatens to destroy Drew and Kenny’s Eden. A great flock of vicious swans patrols the lake, hissing and flogging the frightened cheerleaders. This reviewer is giving too much away. Suffice it to say, “the plot thickens.”

This is a big book and this review has barely scratched the surface. Readers will also encounter a classic horror story, “The Paperhanger,” by William Gay. Kathy Conner’s “The Widow Sunday” presents a marvelous story about a widow who has a horn growing out of her head and a young woman who covets it. Joy Beshears Hagy provides a classic example of “shock fiction” with a short story, “Dinner Date,” that is one paragraph long (Ted Bundy dates a vampire.) There is a poem about a clown who calls himself Cactus Vic and drives a Wonder Bread truck. Even Joyce Carol Oates gets in on the action ... and dear reader, there are a dozen more stories that cannot be discussed here, since I’ve run out of space. Read this one if you love the kinky South.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva.)

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