2017-07-12
A hallmark of Southern literature since its renaissance in the 1920s has been an unflinching, even obsessive, fascination with evil. And despite the protests we Southerners make that our literary culture is populated by creatures more complex than the denizens of Deliverance County, the fact is that our literature's explorations of depravity are usually centered in individual characters--Popeye in Faulkner's "Sanctuary," or Lester Ballard in Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God," to name just two. The South may indeed be "Christ-haunted," in Flannery O'Connor's oft-quoted phrase, but its literature is equally haunted by Cain, as the spirit of violence and barbarity has long wandered across its pages. Much of this propensity toward violence in our writing is the working out, as if in bad dreams, the consequences of what Ike Caslin in "Go Down Moses" called America's Original Sin: slavery. For nearly four decades, Ellen Douglas has written about the aftermath of that sin and the often-tortured relationship between Southern blacks and whites. In "Second Creek," the final story in "Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell," Douglas fixes her unblinking eye on how America's principal iniquity relates to her own family history. In 1861 in Natchez, Mississippi, landowners tortured and executed 30 slaves for suspicion of plotting a rebellion. "No legal arrests, no trials, no testimony" occurred, says Douglas, just brutal examinations and murder. Very little evidence
remains of what transpired, and Douglas' attempt to discover what did is of necessity a brilliant piece of mnemonic detection: Her stories hover in the twilight of memory where truth and fiction become entangled. The need for truth is especially pressing for Douglas; her ancestors owned land in Natchez at the time of the massacre. In the end, however, she fails to reach the heart of what occurred near the banks of Second Creek. No act of imaginative memory can comprehend such malignancy, the kind of horror that led her grandmother's servant to conclude, in "Hampton," that "only an evil God could have created the world we live in." It is a judgment that haunts Douglas, and one that informs the work of the Faulkner-Welty era of Southern writers, of whom Douglas is a part--temperamentally if not quite temporally. Walker Percy once opined that the South produced so many writers because "we lost the War," which O'Connor took to mean, "we had our Fall." Confederate Southerners had to confront the disillusioning loss of the idealized old order of the antebellum era at the same time that black folk were slapped with the oppression and cruelties of Jim Crow. But as the memory of that catastrophe fades in the collective mind of the South, such a visceral understanding of a Fall withers as well, and it is possible to conclude that even the South has lost its vocabulary for evil. But such an explanation doesn't hold,
since Southern writers remain quite capable of giving flesh to malevolence. In Larry Brown's 1992 novel, "Joe," for example, Brown presents us with the diabolical Wade Jones, who rivals Faulkner's Popeye as American literature's most unremittingly wicked creation. He is the type of man who can blithely sell his son for a car, batter his wife, pimp his daughter, and steal food from his other children. But a look at Brown's latest novel, "Fay," due out this spring, reveals that something has changed. Here, Jones is nothing more than the past his 17-year-old daughter walks away from as she makes her way from Oxford to the Gulf Coast in search of a new life. This is not to say that Brown isn't concerned with the human propensity for violence. By the end of his picaresque tale, five people are murdered or otherwise dead from bullets, a car wreck, a tanker-truck explosion, and a plane crash. At times, the beautiful Fay seems like an advance scout for the Grim Reaper.

But absent in all this is the palpable, corporeal evil that was her father. What remains instead is a general impression of a world that, while harsh and unfeeling, is not a place where the infernal is incarnate. And what this indicates is the possibility of a Southern literature more open to a redemptive vision, in which a fallen world is no longer one where evil is given its darkest expression but instead is one simply fractured and cracked, where grace is found in its restoration piece by piece. A look at Brown's contemporaries seems to bear this out.

The sudden appearance two years ago of William Gay, a former carpenter and dry-wall hanger, caused a literary stir not seen since Brown's entrance a decade earlier. In his 1998 debut, "The Long Home," Gay introduced Dallas Hardin, a venomously avaricious man whose ambition stops at nothing and whose mendacity threatens to corrupt the idealistic hero, Nathan Winer. And initially, Gay's new "Provinces of the Night," which opens with a work crew uncovering 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 "The Long Home," rendering with wry humor three warped, debauched generations of Bloodworth men. Life has not been easy for the youngest Bloodworth, Fleming, who at 17 is able to observe that "the world ha[s] little of comfort or assurance." It doesn't even have the assurance of a final resting place. Near the novel's end, a dam floods hundreds of acres, forcing the locals to disinter the dead from their graves and move them to higher ground. Despite this blunt lesson in life's contingency, Fleming sees despair and resignation as worthless responses, just as he does grandiose, messianic visions. "I don't want to fix the world," he tells his girlfriend. "Just the little part of it I have to live on."

A similar sense of loss--of things covered over and concealed--permeates Tony Earley's story collection, "Here We Are in

Paradise." Secrets are hidden, stories are untold, individual lives are unfulfilled. But by revealing what is below the surface, Earley performs an act of redemptive--albeit limited--reclamation. The stories are less concerned with depicting depravity at its most abject than with exploring the sorrow, endemic to a fallen world, that stems from our incapacity to understand each other fully or to be understood. That existential isolation is at its most poignant in the collection's title story, in which a mastectomy patient dying from cancer is devastated by the realization that her husband has never really known her. In a moment of insight that borders on grace, however, she sees that it doesn't matter. She says nothing. It is a small thing, perhaps, but it is as profound as any feat of heroic self-sacrifice you will find in, say, Tennyson or Kipling. And in a world where evil is found in the banal cruelties of the everyday, redemption is achieved in such modest, mustard-seed acts.



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