Alex Taylor’s collection of stories set in Kentucky channels Southern greats like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
What happens when a writer with a Southern sensibility takes her characters’ hopes and feelings seriously—even when a groom punches his bride in the face at their wedding reception; when a roofer spends his nights wrecking cars in Crashing Derbies; when the owner of a struggling drive-in theater loses business to a widower and his six boys and their makeshift concession stand? Alex Taylor’s new collection of stories, The Name of the Nearest River, treats working-class Kentuckians with dignity and respect, and the level of investment he has in his characters affects a reader to the point that Kentucky feels like home, and the characters feel like old friends.
If there’s a theme that holds these stories together, it is survival: These characters do whatever it takes to get through bleak situations. For Doug and Lum, the main characters in “A Lakeside Penitence,” that means “noodling” a flathead catfish to take to dinner after their Aunt Vergie’s funeral. They’re determined men, and not even a pair of swingers on a jet-ski can keep them from what they’ve set out to do:
Soon, Doug raised up a fish so large and ornery it was like dark fire stolen from the earth’s furnace, a great twisting old fish with Fu Manchu whiskers, something that had lain for so long on the lake bottom it had the look of wise sleep in its eyes. It was perhaps three feet in length. Doug lunged and struggled with it and finally climbed atop the slag pile and held it at arms length by the gills, his face showing stern amazement. He didn’t know how he could have missed such a creature earlier, or why only now, at this moment, it was being offered to him.
“That there is a goddamn fish,” he said.
In each story, Taylor is precise and economical as he describes his characters doing what they do best. His language is the characters’ language, but arranged just so, to the fullest affect. Taylor is a resourceful craftsman of sentences, like a carpenter with a house to build and only so much lumber with which to build it.
“We Were Men and the Fire Made Us” is the story of James Louis, a.k.a. Jay-Lou From Town, a teenager whose mother is in an insane asylum and whose father is a security guard at a furniture store. From early on, it’s clear that the setting has little to offer the budding James Louis: “This wasn’t the town. This was me and the old man after Mama went crazy and had to be taken to the state home in Hopkinsville. This was us living at the foot of a knob in a place that had never inherited a name. This was bastard land, just ground and dirt, trees and sky.”
Whenever James Louis meets up with his neighbors, Harold and Donald Basham, the three go out in search of something—anything—to do in a town so laden with general malaise:
Down long highways with the Frog’s tires spitting on the dark pavement, Donald in the back seat with his milk jug sloshing and Harold crooked over the wheel. We were routine, punctual. We made the thirteen miles into town, circled the McDonald’s, then passed the IGA parking lot thick with strange-agers who thought big crime and drank Koolaid mixed with vodka. We followed the town’s grid, glowed in empty streets, downed a heave of hamburgers and Nehi before wheeling again into the black swim of evening. We went to the trailer court and parked under the willows but all the windows showed black at us. There were no lights, nobody home.
So we went on.
The limits of the characters’ integrity are tested and occasionally compromised, as in “The Evening Part of Daylight.” It’s the author’s careful restraint that keeps the Kentucky setting interesting; certainly, readers may expect to encounter trashy behavior, but it’s clear that Taylor strives for balance:
It was Lustus Sheetmire’s wedding day and he’d just punched his new bride Loreesa in the jaw. The reception guests flocked around her. Most of them were near drunk and wept with disbelief. Loreesa staggered back, crumpling onto the mown bank of the lake where the reception was being held, an eruption of suds beside the still murk of the water in her dress and veil. Some of the guests had been fishing at the moment of violence, their hooks baited with shrimp and catalpa worms settling on the bottom, their poles and Baitcaster reels rising lewdly from between their legs. And now this.
Small-town life has rarely been written about with as much empathy as Taylor has for the characters and their plights in each of these stories. For all the author’s Southern influences—moral dilemmas akin to O’Connor, the ruthlessness of early Faulkner, and maybe the pathos of McCullers—the characters never feel like they’re the butt of the author’s joke; the care with which he crafts each story extends to the treatment of each character and scene. Such attention toward characters’ feelings gives The Name of the Nearest River an authenticity that sets it apart from other contemporary fiction of the Southern persuasion, and shows Alex Taylor to be a distinctive new voice in American fiction. Whether or not you’ve ever set foot in Kentucky, reading these stories feels like returning to a familiar place.