It’s not uncommon for chapbooks to grow out of literary festivals at all, so Sonny Brewer has done nothing new in publishing “stories” written, at least in part, by the eclectic group of writers who appeared at a somewhat free-flowing annual event a few years ago called the “Southern Writers Reading” in Fairhope, Alabama.
What may be a bit uncommon is that the chapbook ended up containing 345 pages, one poem and 29 stories. Some of the stories are fiction; some are nonfiction; unfortunately, we aren’t told which is which. The stories in the book are, for the most part, stories that one would expect from Southern writers—about race relations, civil war battles, women attempting to cling to the social mores of the old South. But a surprising number of the stories, 12 out of 29, concern children and adolescents coming to terms with death: death of a parent, sibling, friend, and—in one case—a pet. Of these, Melinda Haynes’ “Love Like A Bullet,” stands out in its literary complexity and sophistication. In it, a 14-year-old boy, part of a raggle-taggle family of modern “gleaners,” watches his brother die in a highway accident. The story begins:
“Jesse died underneath a neon sign with three burned-out tubes. During the day the sign spells out Star Lite Motel just like it’s supposed to do, but at night the first, fifth, and eighth letters stay dark and each time that sign lights up, it spells ‘tar it’ against the backdrop of the raceway across the street. And that’s how I’m beginning to feel—tarred and feathered and like God was waiting with a big stick to run me out of town before I’d left the womb good.”
This elegant little piece takes its genesis from the Bible’s “Story of Ruth,” and the film version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, as the child begins to see himself and his haphazard family in the eyes of a larger culture for the first time.
The anthology contains some heavy hitters. Pat Conroy’s “My Heart’s Content,” an excerpt from My Losing Season, is, essentially, an older and (he claims) wiser Conroy looking back and wishing he had fought in the Vietnam War, instead of protesting it. And Rick Bragg, a veteran New York Times writer, contributes the lyrical “The Blues Is Dying In The Place It Was Born,” a powerful portrait of three aging blues musicians in Belzoni, Mississippi, which incidentally appeared as a photo essay last summer in The New York Times Magazine.
W.E.B. Griffin, too, graces these pages with his story, “Going Back To The Bridge In Berlin,” in which an aging World War II veteran revisits the scene of intense fighting with a younger wife who is more interested in making it to Sans Souci on time than understanding the poignant memories her husband is experiencing.
The anthology is a good read, and recommended, despite a couple of stories that, in reverting too obviously to a hackneyed formula of rather precocious surprise endings, seem to better belong to an undergraduate writing class than to this anthology.
– Eva Hunter