For Max Salazar, 1932-2010 « PREV | NEXT »: Dreams and patchworks: Berlioz in Chicago

September 22, 2010

That's What I Like About the South

'Twas a fateful decision. When I was an undergraduate, not so much "torn" between art classes and English classes as squeezed in trying to take as many of each as I could, there were these little, one-credit, one-hour-a-week courses in individual authors. My schedule and general preference for the modern (which is why I don't know nothin' about no DWEM canon, but that's another story) presented me with a choice between a class in Faulkner or one in Hemingway. I took Faulkner, and my prose style, such as it is, has been clotted, crenulated and Corinthian ever since. I've never seen a semicolon I didn't like and, when I first signed on as art critic at Newsweek, my editor's most frequent marginalium was an arrow pointing to a particularly long, contorted sentence, accompanied by the comment, "Chop this baby up, please!"

Naturellement, my likes in recreational fiction were inclined, over the years from youth through the seven not-quite-pillars of wisdom, toward southern novelists: Eudora Welty, William Styron, Calder Willingham, Walker Percy, Carson McCullers, and others. Gradually, I came to the conclusion that in 20th century American literature there were essentially two main themes: being Jewish in New York and being weird (and, the default position, white) in the South. Although I read my share of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth (and even slogged through Henry Roth, too), I could never quite get down with the former program. Of course, it probably had to do with my being a gentile from L.A. (which is, remember, south of the Mason-Dixon line), and the fact that in my formative years (a.k.a. high school), the only adult Jews with whom I made acquaintance were parents of fellow students, who worked in "the industry," wore Hawaiian shirts, and whose only appurtenances of religion were mezuzahs worn on chains around the neck.

Times and circumstances, however, change. Since I am compelled by my involvement in the art world to read a surfeit of what an L.A. curator a long time ago called "artblat" (the most recent example being a volume of thirteen extra-dense essays collected under the heading "What Is Contemporary Art?"--a supremely difficult question, it turns out, to answer), my recreational fiction-reading pretty much consists of detective novels. I'm fairly high-end, though, favoring fairly literate Brit and Scandinavian police procedurals to American books where the title on the dust jacket is printed in metallic bas-relief. Michael Connelly is my tipping point: His novels begin all Nicholas Freeling and end all Jerry Bruckheimer. Nevertheless, every once in a while I try something more serious, what the trade calls "literary fiction," or a happenstance anthology.

An example of the second arrived in my hands in the form of a copy of "Oxford American" magazine, "proudly published by the University of Central Arkansas." (Arkansas strikes me as somewhat fringe-South, or at least non-Deep-South, like the two "southern" places I've lived in during my life, North Carolina and Texas.) The current issue contains "Best of the South 2010," a compendium of fiction, memoir, reportage, and photography (which has been seized as a narrative art form by Southerners) by 45 contributors. Most look young, all but two of the twenty-three with headshots are white, and a goodly number are involved with academic creative writing programs. The cover photograph, by Nöel Kristi Wells, shows an apparent older sister--on the other side of puberty--riding piggyback on her younger brother, who's in the final stages of pre-pubescence. The kid is wearing jeans and a sleeveless white T-shirt; she's wearing a hiked-up print dress, baring a lot of leg. He stares expressionlessly straight ahead. She stares sternly straight ahead, and carries in one hand either a very small rifle or a full-size BB gun. The photograph has all the backyard, working-class, intrafamilial sexual tension you need to know instantly that this periodical is about the South. (No, no--don't give me any of that "eye of the beholder stuff." I don't buy Sally Mann's work as tone poems about mother love, and the editors of the "Oxford American" selected this picture for the cover. They certainly didn't choose it because it shows the South as the "sportman's paradise" of Louisiana license-plate fame.)

It's a real good magazine, issue no. 69 is, and I'll bet the full year of four issues is well worth the $24.95 subscription price. (My copy came free, on loan from a small-town hardware-store proprietor I know.) "Oxford American" is chock-full of interesting writing, much more so than a typical issue of "The New Yorker," to which my spouse insists on resubscribing every year. But, taken as an aggregate, the pieces in this edition of "Oxford American" reveal, I think, an overall cast--sometimes paraded, but mostly thinly disguised--of the contemporary Southern cultural mentality: A proud self-consciousness about appearing unselfconscious about being just weird enough to be entertaining. The title and first sentence ("I'm at my cousin's house in middle Georgia") of "Are You a Tree Bitch?" by Ad Hudler, who desribes himself as a "a big fan of Glen Campbell and unrenovated mom-and-pop motels," support my premise almost by themselves. If that doesn't seal the deal, try the beginning of Drew Perry's "Ode to That Place":

"I've long since given up trying to explain to most of my friends and family, and assorted skeptical onlookers, why this is the kind of thing that matters to me, and matters fiercely--though at least when I run into Jim at the meat counter in the grocery, Jim from when I lived over in some other life, he'll ask, like he does this time every year, if I've got my tomatoes in, what I did to the soil, what I've done for mulch. This is what passes for high mass in Harris-Teeter." Perry lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was as of the magazine's publication date an expectant father and Randy Newman fan--exactly the kind of so-normal-it's-hip ingenuousness, of polite weirdness, that seems to characterize this issue of "Oxford American." It's obviously unfair to ask that the writing in such a magazine be the second--or third or fourth--coming of Faulkner, just as it'd be foolish to ask the writing in "Oxford American's" Yankee equivalent--I don't know what that'd be, but I presume one is out there--to be Saul Bellow redux. But I do know that "Oxford American" is the first magazine I've had in my possession in a long time that I've happily delved into enough to really beat up the cover and the first few pages on either end. And it made me go look up the long-ago band leader Phil Harris doing his signature tune (see the title of this post, above) on YouTube.

My latest dip into actual, store-bought, hardcover, crisply new literary fiction is Jonathan Franzen's fat novel, "Freedom." I don't quite get the brouhaha it's caused. I say "quite" because I think I do comprehend--from parallel instances in the art world--the envious accusations, from writers who'd like to walk a bestseller's mile in Franzen's paragon shoes, of establishment critics' white-male class favoritism. The takedowns of Franzen as a person, and the debunkings of putative claims of the book's being a publishing-game-changing masterpiece that settles the matter of The Way We Live Now for the next decade or so seem to me beside the point. It's a terrific novel, particularly in the way that it reads like a blend of somebody in a bar telling you a long story and a talented writer carefully plying his craft, and in the way it moves in and out (mostly in) of its characters heads so seamlessly. "Freedom" is a page turner, and its characters are eminently plausible in thought, word and deed. It is not, however, a salvation-diagnosis of the post-September-11th malaise we all suffer to some degree, and it probably shouldn't be assigned as one of those "freshman books" for incoming college students. It's just, well, a helluva lot better than those well-written but quite silly "The Girl Who..." mystery novels.

September 22, 2010 1:00 PM | | Comments (0)

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