A hallmark of Southern literature since its renaissance in the 1920s hasbeen an unflinching, even obsessive, fascination with evil. And despitetheprotests we Southerners make that our literary culture is populated bycreatures more complex than the denizens of Deliverance County, thefactis that our literature's explorations of depravity are usually centeredin individualcharacters--Popeye in Faulkner's "Sanctuary," or Lester Ballard inCormacMcCarthy's "Child of God," to name just two. The South may indeed be"Christ-haunted," in Flannery O'Connor's oft-quoted phrase, but itsliterature is equally haunted by Cain, as the spirit of violence andbarbarityhas long wandered across its pages.Much of this propensity toward violence in our writing is the workingout,asif in bad dreams, the consequences of what Ike Caslin in "Go Down Moses"called America'sOriginal Sin: slavery. For nearly four decades, Ellen Douglas haswrittenabout the aftermath of that sin and the often-tortured relationshipbetween Southern blacks and whites. In"Second Creek," the final story in "Truth: Four Stories I AmFinally Old Enough to Tell," Douglas fixes her unblinking eye on howAmerica'sprincipal iniquity relates to her own family history. In 1861 inNatchez,Mississippi, landowners tortured and executed 30 slaves for suspicion of plottingarebellion. "No legal arrests, no trials, no testimony" occurred, saysDouglas, just brutal examinations and murder. Very little evidenceremainsof what transpired, and Douglas' attempt to discover what did is ofnecessity a brilliant piece of mnemonic detection: Her stories hover inthetwilight of memory where truth and fiction become entangled.The need for truth is especially pressing for Douglas; her ancestorsownedland in Natchez at the time of the massacre. In the end, however,shefails to reach the heart of what occurred near the banks of SecondCreek. Noact of imaginative memory can comprehend such malignancy, the kind ofhorrorthat led her grandmother's servant to conclude, in "Hampton," that "onlyan evil Godcouldhave created the world we live in."
It is a judgment that haunts Douglas, and one that informs the work oftheFaulkner-Welty era of Southern writers, of whom Douglas is apart--temperamentally if not quite temporally.Walker Percy once opined that the South produced so many writers because"welost the War," which O'Connor took to mean, "we had our Fall." Confederate Southerners had to confront thedisillusioningloss of the idealized old order of the antebellum era at the same timethatblack folk were slapped with the oppression and cruelties of Jim Crow.Butas the memory of that catastrophe fades in the collective mind of theSouth,such a visceral understanding of a Fall withers as well, and it ispossible toconclude that even theSouth has lost its vocabulary for evil. But such an explanation doesn'thold,since Southern writers remain quite capable of giving flesh tomalevolence. In Larry Brown's 1992novel,"Joe," for example, Brown presents us with the diabolical Wade Jones,who rivals Faulkner's Popeye as American literature's mostunremittinglywicked creation. He is the type of man who can blithely sell his son foracar, batter his wife, pimp his daughter, and steal food from his otherchildren.But a look at Brown's latest novel, "Fay," due out this spring, reveals that something haschanged. Here, Jones is nothing more thanthe past his 17-year-old daughter walks away from as she makesher way from Oxfordtothe Gulf Coast in search of a new life. This is not to say that Brownisn't concerned with the humanpropensity for violence. By the end of his picaresque tale, fivepeopleare murdered or otherwise dead from bullets, a car wreck, atanker-truck explosion, and a plane crash. At times, the beautiful Fayseemslike an advance scout for the Grim Reaper.
But absent in all this is the palpable, corporeal evil that washerfather. What remains instead is a general impression of a world that,whileharsh and unfeeling, is not a place where the infernal is incarnate. Andwhat this indicates is the possibility of a Southern literature moreopen to a redemptive vision, in which a fallen world is no longer onewhere evil is given its darkestexpression but instead is one simply fractured and cracked, wheregrace is found in its restoration piece by piece. A look at Brown'scontemporaries seems to bear this out.The sudden appearance two years ago of William Gay, a former carpenteranddry-wall hanger, caused a literary stir not seen since Brown's entrancea decade earlier. In his 1998 debut, "The Long Home,"Gayintroduced Dallas Hardin, a venomously avaricious man whose ambitionstopsat nothing and whose mendacity threatens to corrupt the idealistic hero,Nathan Winer. And initially, Gay's new "Provinces of the Night," whichopens with a work crewuncovering a buried mason jar containing the skeletal remains of an infant,appears ready to descend even further into the darkness.But "Provinces" turns out to be a much less bleak creation than "TheLongHome," rendering with wry humor three warped, debauched generations ofBloodworth men. Life has not been easy for the youngestBloodworth,Fleming, who at 17 is able to observe that "the world ha[s]little ofcomfort or assurance." It doesn't even have the assurance of a finalresting place. Near the novel's end, a dam floods hundreds of acres,forcingthe locals to disinter the dead from their graves and move them tohigherground. Despite this blunt lesson in life's contingency, Flemingseesdespair and resignation as worthless responses, just as he doesgrandiose,messianic visions. "I don't want to fix the world," he tells hisgirlfriend."Just the little part of it I have to live on."