A hallmark of Southern literature since its renaissance in the 1920s has
been an unflinching, even obsessive, fascination with evil. And despite
protests we Southerners make that our literary culture is populated by
creatures more complex than the denizens of Deliverance County, the
is that our literature's explorations of depravity are usually centered
characters--Popeye in Faulkner's "Sanctuary," or Lester Ballard in
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
has long wandered across its pages.
Much of this propensity toward violence in our writing is the working
if in bad dreams, the consequences of what Ike Caslin in "Go Down Moses"
Original Sin: slavery. For nearly four decades, Ellen Douglas has
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
principal iniquity relates to her own family history. In 1861 in
Mississippi, landowners tortured and executed 30 slaves for suspicion of plotting
rebellion. "No legal arrests, no trials, no testimony" occurred, says
Douglas, just brutal examinations and murder. Very little evidence
of what transpired, and Douglas' attempt to discover what did is of
necessity a brilliant piece of mnemonic detection: Her stories hover in
twilight of memory where truth and fiction become entangled.
The need for truth is especially pressing for Douglas; her ancestors
land in Natchez at the time of the massacre. In the end, however,
fails to reach the heart of what occurred near the banks of Second
act of imaginative memory can comprehend such malignancy, the kind of
that led her grandmother's servant to conclude, in "Hampton," that "only
an evil God
have created the world we live in."
It is a judgment that haunts Douglas, and one that informs the work of
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
lost the War," which O'Connor took to mean, "we had our Fall."
Confederate Southerners had to confront the
loss of the idealized old order of the antebellum era at the same time
black folk were slapped with the oppression and cruelties of Jim Crow.
as the memory of that catastrophe fades in the collective mind of the
such a visceral understanding of a Fall withers as well, and it is
conclude that even the
South has lost its vocabulary for evil. But such an explanation doesn't
since Southern writers remain quite capable of giving flesh to
malevolence. In Larry Brown's 1992
"Joe," for example, Brown presents us with the diabolical Wade Jones,
who rivals Faulkner's Popeye as American literature's most
wicked creation. He is the type of man who can blithely sell his son for
car, batter his wife, pimp his daughter, and steal food from his other
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
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
are murdered or otherwise dead from bullets, a car wreck, a
tanker-truck explosion, and a plane crash. At times, the beautiful Fay
like an advance scout for the Grim Reaper.
But absent in all this is the palpable, corporeal evil that was
father. What remains instead is a general impression of a world that,
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
dry-wall hanger, caused a literary stir not seen since Brown's entrance
a decade earlier. In his 1998 debut, "The Long Home,"
introduced Dallas Hardin, a venomously avaricious man whose ambition
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
Home," rendering with wry humor three warped, debauched generations of
Bloodworth men. Life has not been easy for the youngest
Fleming, who at 17 is able to observe that "the world ha[s]
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,
the locals to disinter the dead from their graves and move them to
ground. Despite this blunt lesson in life's contingency, Fleming
despair and resignation as worthless responses, just as he does
messianic visions. "I don't want to fix the world," he tells his
"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
The stories are less concerned with depicting depravity at its most
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
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
thing, perhaps, but it is as profound as any feat of heroic
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
modest, mustard-seed acts.