The Louisiana Skip Horack creates is both generative and broken, salvific and ruined, marked in ways large and small by Hurricane Katrina.
Regionalism often finds its mode in the pastoral, and in the American South—the South of the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts, the South of bayous and piney swamp lands, not Faulkner’s savage wilderness or William Gay’s Faulknerian dystopia, but the South of Tim Gautreaux and Walker Percy at his most lyrical, zydeco to stark delta blues—this has meant a kind of aching tenderness, writing that makes its diffident case for the region’s beauty.
In his superb debut collection, The Southern Cross, winner of the 2008 Bakeless Prize, Skip Horack paints the landscape of Southern Louisiana with a poet’s feeling for language and an intimate knowledge of people and place. The Louisiana Horack creates is both generative and broken, salvific and ruined, marked in ways large and small by Hurricane Katrina.
Into this landscape comes a varied cast of characters who are by turns indifferent to it, at odds with it, dependent on it for livelihood and renewal. I haven’t read stories which capture better the complexity of the relationship between the people of this region and their work and life, the risks and abundance of life still lived close to the land. The best stories here convey this relationship in prose which renders that blurring between self and place sensually palpable, an intimacy which makes the moments of violence in that relationship viscerally jarring, and the scope of loss from Katrina immediately felt.
In “Rabbit Man,” a widower who lives in a “Gaza Strip of Cajuns wedged between the Union Pacific line and the settlements of the Opelousas black majority” faces the loss of his rabbit breeding stock from “a plague” of calicivirus, a deadly upper-respiratory disease. “Little Man” weaves a small-time beekeeper’s consideration of a buyout offer from a larger farmer with the story of the beekeeper’s caretaking of his senile father. “Caught Fox” is both the story of a fox trap gone awry and a feckless weekend father’s day with his dying son. With Chekhovian detachment, in two short pages, “Chores” reveals its main character through an afternoon of work. Each of these stories shows its protagonist through what they do—the businesses of setting a foxhole trap, of mowing a lawn, of harvesting pure tupelo honey, of how to kill rabbits mercifully—and this work illuminates their lives with astonishing psychological depth and sensitivity.
Katrina makes her appearance most clearly in “The Redfish,” the story of an ex-con who ends up riding out the storm in a mobile home, and who attains the stature of a folk hero—John Brown, Stagger Lee, in the world of Charley Patton’s “High Water Blues.” The storm is also there, more subtly, in “The Journeyman,” when a young black girl, a Cassandra figure, another familiar character of Southern folklore, warns the white adult narrator that “God and Jesus” are “gonna punish this city soon enough;” in “Visual of a Sparrow,” told from the point of view of a young black woman displaced from the Ninth Ward; and in other, fainter echoes of how the storm marked the land and the people who depend on it for their livelihood.
In many stories, violence erupts from this landscape unexpectedly, inevitably. A bird-watching expedition in “Visual of a Sparrow” ends with an act of sudden aggression which flushes out, literally, a small, hidden treasure—in contrast with the static rows of FEMA trailers at its start, the moment brings the story’s subliminal racial and class tensions brilliantly into focus, a complex moment in which old and new South overlap. “Borderlands,” which starts with a murder and the discovery of a young girl’s corpse, makes literal the violence beneath this landscape, but the apotheosis of the story, and in a way, of the whole collection, comes toward the end, in an indelible scene of abundance and brutality:
A battered harvester mowed the standing cane down by the row, and a tractor drawing a high-sided trailer kept time, collecting the blur of billet that dropped from the elevator… The boys… fanned out along the highway armed with clubs and pellet guns and broken asphalt. Behind the harvester a hundred egrets worked the cut field, chicken-scratching the stubble for field mice and lizards.
As the fifth row fell, they came. Rabbits—cottontails and swampers both—exploded from the blackened cane, darting across the highway for the shelter of a new green field. The boys went serious and clubbed what they could as the smallest child moved among them, dispatching the wounded rabbits with six pumps on his rusty Benjamin and a point-blank headshot.
This collection’s real achievement is its depiction of a human as well as physical landscape. The tight-lipped, deadpan wit used to protect secrets in small communities, the jokes that are not quite jokes and not quite serious, the evasions and elisions of speech are conveyed with a pitch-perfect ear, and Horack makes its particular emotional entanglements—between a disaffected teen and his uncle, between a young man and the wife of his brother in prison, between an aging “swamp rat… stuck to the old ways” and an itinerant Mexican laborer—intimately real.
This is not the South of Tim Gautreaux’s stories, of stylized Cajuns in the fictional Grand Crapeaud parish. What Horack’s stories sometimes lack in comparison to Gautreaux’s expert dramatic timing, they more than compensate for in the richness of their portraiture. With perceptiveness and deep intelligence, Horack inhabits a stunning range of characters young and old, male and female, black and white, and shows them entwined with each other, and inseparable from where they live. The Southern Cross marks the arrival of an important new writer—not only a Southern writer, but an American one. The landscape of these stories is our own, the people in it faces we pass on the highway or hidden in fisheries and farms and crab-picking plants, uniquely American. Horack gives them a voice. Sit up and listen.
Skip Horack will read along with Katie Crouch, Joshua Mohr, and Steve Almond at the Monthly Rumpus, in San Francisco, August 10.