Four debut authors—Josh Weil, Skip Horack, Holly Goddard Jones, and Amy Greene—paint varied pictures of the South they know.
In Moss Bluff, Louisiana, Mr. Silva, my hometown’s barber, operated a snow cone stand next to his barbershop. In the middle of warm-month afternoons, Mr. Silva would hang out a sign on his snow-cone stand window stating he’d be back after he drove his school bus route. When a friend of mine went to Tulane and told his college classmates about Mr. Silva, they didn’t believe him. For those Tulane students—primarily from the East Coast, urban, and upper-middle class—Mr. Silva seemed too hokey to be real.
I have not yet been able to put Mr. Silva—or any other quaint folk from my hometown—into fiction, for fear they would seem equally hokey, a contrived device to paint my small town into a kitschy throwback of a time that no longer exists, or maybe never did. Yet because my worldview is partly colored by my podunk hometown, I have longed to find fiction that touches on the Southern small-town underbelly I knew growing up. I’ve longed to learn that Moss Bluff, while unique in its own way, was not a corny anomaly. Now, with four debuts from writers not only of my time and my generation, but also who write of rural Southern places, I have found literary kinship. Josh Weil, Skip Horack, Holly Goddard Jones, and Amy Greene have made the South their canvas, crafting people and places that resonate strongly with the Southern natives and “ex-pats” alike.
In his collection of novellas, The New Valley, Josh Weil writes with precise detail. In “Stillman Wing,” he describes part of a tractor— “The iron wheels had corroded to hoops of rust-leaf. The metal scoop of seat cupped dead leaves turned to sog.” These objects, described with such detail, are not universal or easily attainable observations. The first two novellas in The New Valley seem almost too real, their shadows painted not with the fuzzy edges of real life, but drawn and colored in perfect gray bands. I saw the steer mired in melted snow, fresh mud, and its own filth in “Ridge Weather.” I watched Stillman Wing’s obese, live-at-home adult daughter labor up the stairs, heard the creaks her weight caused on the house’s wood frame. But if “Ridge Weather” and “Stillman Wing” were hyperreal, the last piece, “Sarverville Remains,” seems as though it got left out in the rain. Weil not only switches from away from the third-person, past-tense point of view, he inhabits the voice of a mildly retarded man in epistolary form. This change in voice and tone, while initially disconcerting, shows Weil’s literary range. Not done for effect or for the sake of showing off, Weil inhabits the world of Geoff Sarver and spins this orphan man’s tale. The end product is like an impressionistic painting, blurry up close, but coming into focus at a distance.
Weil’s version of rural Virginia is also one of family ties to the land. In his Granta essay, “One Ridge Over,” Weil includes a photograph of a crossroads signpost that points not to road names, but specific people and families. Not only did I know the elderly man whose surname identified the road on which I grew up, I picked satsumas off the tree that threatened to invade his house’s soffit. I have set some of my own work on a swath of land in rural Tennessee. This land, bordered on the north by Burke Hollow Road and the south by Osburn Road, is in transition—real estate developers are buying up family farms and converting them to suburban cookie-cutter neighborhoods. My husband is an Osburn and his paternal grandmother was a Burke; though they now have standard-issue road signs, there was a time, not too terribly long ago, when these locales were simply known by the families who settled there.
Skip Horack’s debut short story collection, The Southern Cross, is 2005 dotted in pointillism. Taking place over the four seasons of the year when both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, Louisiana native Horack brings readers not only into the world of his upbringing, but also into the sixteen separate Gulf Coast worlds of his characters. Horack takes the “Sportman’s Paradise” mantra of his home state of Louisiana seriously. Many of the stories feature characters directly relating to the animals and wildlife of their settings through hunting, fishing, tracking, or raising. In others, Horack exhibits the intersection of human life and wildlife—in “Chores” a clutch of quail eggs is mowed over; a young girl kills a water moccasin lurking beneath a New Orleans home in “The Journeyman;” and in “Junebelle” an elderly woman in a well-to-do retirement home contemplates her life and the turtle-infested pond on the retirement home’s grounds.
Horack’s stories remind me of my Gulf Coast upbringing and how linked local residents are to their surrounding. While Weil shows us one way rural Southerners are tied to the land they live on, Horack and I know a different sort of terrain. The Gulf Coast region is prone to flooding, erosion, and hurricanes. It is often swampy or poorly soiled and teems with alligators and water moccasins. A trek down my driveway to catch the school bus was sometimes stopped cold when a water moccasin slid out from the St. Augustine grass and crossed inches from my KangaROOS toward the creek. A neighborhood kid was bitten by a cottonmouth at my neighbor’s as they played among decades-old azalea bushes. My mother had to call the authorities to remove a juvenile alligator from our property when it wandered up from the swamps. Our male Irish Setter, trained as a bird dog, once proudly dropped a dead nutria on our back doorstep. In this region, the ties to the land are not always as sure as they are for ranchers or farmers. There is no medicine for a flash flood or a hurricane. There are no pesticides for all those water moccasins because they aren’t pests; humans have encroached on their swamplands and waterways. Horack knows this coexistence—the inextricable link between the rural people of the Gulf Coast and their land—and represents it wonderfully.
Holly Goddard Jones sets her collection of short stories, Girl Trouble, in one small Kentucky town based on her hometown. Fictional Roma and the people who inhabit it might seem completely unrelated to the Norway of a hundred years ago, but as I read Jones’ book, I was reminded of Edvard Munch’s paintings. The narrator of “Parts,” a divorced mother who has lost her only child to a rape and the arson meant to cover it up, is like the ghoulish subject of “The Scream.” As the narrator states, “I’m good at finding that dark matter in the white space.” This sentiment is both Munch’s artistic legacy and a thread Jones weaves into each of her stories. At times, Girl Trouble seems almost noir in tone, but Jones delves into human complexity with grace and skill. She answers few questions, but teases out her characters’ complicated dualities and leaves great swaths of light and dark—and, most of all, gray—for the reader to sort out. There’s not a lot going on in small-town life: no art gallery galas, no opera, no book festivals. What Jones shows her readers is that, although the external world may seem boring and placid, small-town folk are complex, complicated, teeming with conflict, and have entire sagas going on with others and within themselves.
In Amy Greene’s forthcoming novel, Bloodroot, we return to Appalachia. Rather than the rural Southwest Virginia hills of Weil’s collection, Greene writes of her home just south of the border: East Tennessee. Bloodroot is a family saga focused on the central figure of Myra Odom. Told from different points of view, we get a portrait of a family from the Great Depression to the present. These perspectives are not always clear, however, especially that of Myra, who has been locked away in a mental asylum. Mainly set on a mountain called Bloodroot, Greene brings us into a world of superstition. While this world may seem foreign and entirely fictional, the author writes what she knows—a people and a place struggling with the legacies of poverty and under-education. Greene weaves the belief in haints and use spells into a portrait of people who read the Bible daily. Superstitious beliefs such as these are not specific to rural Appalachia. They might also be found in suburban communities in southwest Louisiana. Those who cross themselves at church will also warn you not to go to the zoo while pregnant, lest your child look like the first animal you see. Those who believe in the Holy Ghost might also gather sassafras leaves on a full moon to make the best filé powder. Those college-bound students in marching band might also believe in, and claim to have seen, angels and demons.
After 25 years of living in different parts of the South, the people and landscapes of these four debuts rings true for me. Whether Josh Weil’s rural Virginia, Skip Horack’s Gulf Coast, the troubled inner lives of Holly Goddard Jones’s characters, or the conflicted family of Amy Greene’s novel, the rural South might seem hokey to outsiders, but it’s a South I know and can vouch for.