"In those days, the 1970s, I think the newness had not yet fully arrived. Senescence was still king [...] I was extremely fortunate to find myself in the midst of such a falling-apart time; one moribund culture, disintegrating. The Old South was not so much giving way to the New South as, instead, to the No-South. Rugged and/or pastoral individualism and eccentricity would—for better or worse and in the blink of an eye—become nothingness. A macabre nation of corporate zombies was marching toward us from the horizon, but we could not see them yet. Money was their God, but we did not know it yet." —Rick Bass, from the afterword to "Goats"
Algonquin's annual anthology New Stories from the South is arranged alphabetically by author, and that's why "Goats," by longtime contributor Rick Bass, leads off this year's collection. But as an announcement of theme, the story's placement is apt. Parts of "Goats" take place in one of the "strange seams of disintegrating roughness on the perimeters" of Houston, Texas:
[P]ockets toward and around which the expanding city spilled and flowed like lava [...] that seemed to be sinking into the black soil, the muck of peat, as if pressed down by the immense weight of the industrial demands placed upon that spongy soil—gigantic tanks and water towers and chemical vats, strange intestinal folds and coils of tarnished aluminum towering above us, creeping through the remnant forests like nighttime serpents.
This thesis—the Old South poisoned and devoured by the New (or No) South—receives a full workout in the warm, funny, vividly recalled "Goats." Two high school boys decide to raise cattle on land owned by one boy's dying grandfather, "a papery husk of a man" living his last days with these callow entrepreneurs, who drive his enormous station wagon into the city seeking auctions. They can't afford prize livestock, so they buy cheap, sickly specimens from a categorically Old-South fellow named Heironymous Sloat, who has hung by his fetid hovel a quaintly botched sign advertising "BABY CLAVES $15." Not only do the boys purchase several diarrhea-spewing calves from Sloat's corral, they also wind up with his adolescent daughter, Flozelle, who has never showered or seen a movie. She's the only creature they acquire from Sloat that doesn't quickly escape. "We were just filling the days," observes the narrator, probably aware that those days—the senescent grandfathers, the endangered ranches, and the Heironymous Sloats of the Old South—were numbered.
But "Goats" and Bass's afterword don't herald a compilation of nostalgia for the Old South and odium for the New/No South. New Stories from the South, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones, is really nothing more or less than an honorable brace of new fictions. Some of them are, no doubt, distinctly Southern in locale or character, but many are not. A couple are set outside the region, and some others, like the acid, demoralizing "A Terrible Thing" by Chapel Hill's Daniel Wallace, could take place almost anywhere. The stories are urban, suburban and rural; the characters are doctors and junkmen, criminals and art historians, basketball coaches and dog euthanists. The voices range from Moira Crone's grave neo-gothic novella "The Ice Garden" to Jason Ockert's tautly cinematic "Jakob Loomis" to Angela Threatt's dreamy teen-diary "Bela Lugosi's Dead" to Hillsborough author Allan Gurganus' improbably jaunty and garrulous flood tale "Fourteen Feet of Water in My House" (about Hurricane Floyd, written before Katrina but published shortly after in Harpers).
Yet this variation itself says something about the South: It's changing, or it has changed, and what it has become is a place much like everywhere else. For every story set in a cornfield or an old family manor, there are two or three featureless locales: a Chinese restaurant, or a suburban backyard. The Heironymous Sloats are far outnumbered by ordinary folk who live within boundaries that have nothing to do with geography. Their troubles could visit them almost anywhere. Or, as George Singleton puts it in his "Which Rocks We Chose": "Forget the South being fucked up. America."
Perhaps the problem, though, isn't that America is fucked up, but that it's less fucked up than ever. The "old, weird America" that cultural historian Greil Marcus found in folk music is giving way to a new, normal America that is organized, socio-culturally and infrastructurally, around mass recreational shopping and corporate profit. "Pastoral individualism and eccentricity" are roped off and then transformed into marketable memorabilia or kitsch: The "corporate zombies" Rick Bass couldn't quite make out in the '70s have come to buy out the Old South (and most of the rest of the United States). This is not a surprising trend. All life moves toward homogeneity, conformity, mediocrity. Beauty and wildness and anything that startles are usually destroyed. The brown and the plain, the common and weedlike, consumes everything in its path and thrives; or, to borrow from Flannery O'Connor, everything that rises must converge—and then fall down to earth. It is the artist's calling, of course, to resist that decline, if by no other means than pointing it out.
Or is it a decline? James L. Peacock, Kenan Professor of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill, sees the change differently in his new book, Grounded Globalism: How the U.S. South Embraces the World. He argues that the South, historically opposed to the national ethos, may have an easier time interacting with the whole world than with the United States itself. Peacock offers a seven-point plan—a sort of quasi-Freudian hybrid of Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief and the Alcoholics' Anonymous 12-step program—that maps the South's possible voyage from an oppositional regional identity (slavery), through rebellion and defeat and resentment (Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow), to "transmutation by global identity, and grounding of that identity in sustained regional identity." It's "Think Globally, Act Locally" for anthropology majors.
Peacock advances his unlikely argument in an unlikely way. He relies heavily on anecdote, much of it his personal observations of daily life here in the Triangle: conferences and celebrations and workshops he has attended, fragments of conversations he's overheard on airplanes, stories of multicultural families he knows, etc. He forthrightly acknowledges and defends this reliance in a lengthy footnote: Although anecdotal evidence is usually dismissed as an "inadequate basis for verification," Peacock insists that it "can be fruitful in generating ideas and in exploring their connection to experience," and that his anecdotes are in fact distillations of "a large background of fieldwork, documentation and experience."
Part of Peacock's design, then, is to summon his reader's own observations and anecdotes of Southern-international "interpenetration" (to use his term): Bollywood movies and samosas at Cary's Galaxy Cinema, a Japanese Shinto priest playing electronica in Carrboro, the new preponderance of taquerías (and Latino construction workers) throughout the Triangle, etc. But Peacock also focuses his gaze deeper into the Southern psyche: In a chapter called "Subjectivities," he looks at Asian-inflected mysticism, Jungianism and dream interpretation—small pockets of what might be called the New, Weird South—arguing that "spirituality and mysticism are ways of addressing change and diversity."
But when Peacock stretches the idea to broader realms, the evidence is unconvincing. Twice he relates finding Confederate flags with "Made in China" labels on them—once at the State Fair—which feels less like an instance of international integration than like two wrongs failing to make a right. When he tries to laud the global reach of South-based mega-businesses like Delta Airlines, Wal-Mart and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Peacock may have confused grounded globalism with corporate zombies. It's doubtful that the Pakistanis who burned a Lahore KFC last year had Dixie on their vengeful minds. (An ironic and telling footnote: Kentucky Fried Chicken had to abbreviate its name to "KFC" for 14 years in order to avoid paying licensing fees to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which "trademarked" the state name in a desperate effort to increase revenue.)
Although his anecdotal strategy and his optimism are refreshing, Peacock is ultimately impeded by the limited scope of his investigation. More than half of his examples, it seems, are right here in the Triangle. This localism makes for engaging reading if you live here, but positing the Triangle as representative of the South is misleading. The Triangle nowadays resembles Providence or Minneapolis more than it does the Mississippi Delta or New Orleans; our globalism has been imported through the liberal customs of the North, largely via the influx of academicians, scientists and white-collar professionals. His conclusion offers a second multi-point plan for the South that, unsurprisingly, could serve as well for almost any place in the world. And throughout Grounded Globalism, he often has to settle for generalizations like "The move from dualism to pluralism is a broad tendency composed of many trends and complexities." (Not too different from "everything that rises must converge," really, and homelier phrasing.)
Peacock is a magpie: He wants to find grounded globalism everywhere he looks, and so sometimes finds dubious examples. (He oversells his career at UNC—he mentions, twice, that he taught Michael Jordan—like a man applying for tenure.) His catholicity sometimes reads as tendentiousness. Nonetheless, Grounded Globalism applies a refreshingly forward-looking sanguinity to Southern studies—Peacock is interested, ultimately, in the future, not the Lost Cause. Haven't we had enough, after all, of Jim Crow, of our decades of intractable poverty, the ruinous floods, the wisteria-choked bathos, the misplaced Civil War nostalgia, the inbred exclusionism masquerading as gentility, the refuge we have long provided for grotesquely hateful, invidious politics? (Let the Old South not rise again!) Have you in the Triangle been to your local Farmers' Market—an airy pavilion where radicals and conservatives, great chefs and working mothers jostle congenially at the stalls for vegetables brought over from Africa centuries ago, grown and sold now by lesbians and blacks, Jews and Christians, hippies and rednecks and kids and scientists? Have you hiked in autumn in Umstead State Park—hard by the airport, jets blasting overhead—on land Indians once farmed, and picked muscadine grapes from the vines growing there? Do you go to Duke Gardens on Sundays, commingling with its burgeoning contingent of Latino families, its brides and students, rabbits and turtles, hawks and herons? Have you seen the charmingly jumbled, unforced rejuvenation of downtown Durham, roused from its long desuetude? Or the scrappy, striving risorgimento of our local arts—which are the lodestar of life? Yes, we have installed chain businesses at American Tobacco (Starbucks, NPR), and the Tobacco Trail itself leads from there to (of course!) Southpoint Mall: We have replaced one moribund Southern culture with another, self-connecting one.
But don't call this the No South just yet. Perhaps Stephanie Powell Watts describes it best with the title of her story, alphabetically—but fittingly—the very last in New Stories from the South, about young Jehovah's Witness peddlers soliciting a Yankee in the heat of a North Carolina summer: "Unassigned Territory." This territory is ours to claim, before the zombies take over. Until we do, stories real and imagined mark the spots where the Old South is buried, where we live now, and where the New South will grow.
Edward P. Jones, editor of this year's New Stories from the South, makes two appearances this Saturday, Sept. 8, to discuss and sign copies of the book: at McIntyre's Fine Books in Fearrington Village at 11 a.m., and at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham, at 7 p.m. He will be joined at both stores by some of the book's contributing authors, including Joshua Ferris, Daniel Wallace, Angela Threatt and Holly Goddard Jones, who will read selections from their stories. James L. Peacock will appear at McIntyre's on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 11 a.m., and at the Regulator on Thursday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m.
Edward P. Jones in the Triangle
Quick—name the most recent debut novel to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. To Kill A Mockingbird (1961) is a good guess, but the answer is of a much younger vintage. Edward P. Jones, editor of this year's New Stories from the South anthology, won the award in 2004 for The Known World.
But The Known World was hardly Jones' first fiction. He published his first short story in 1976, and his first collection, Lost in the City, won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1992. He has been favorably compared to some of the titans of short fiction (Chekhov, Joyce, Munro, Trevor). Jones' most recent collection of stories, All Aunt Hagar's Children (Amistad 2006, 403 pp.), was a New York Times bestseller and has just been issued in paperback. A story-cycle of sorts, spanning more than a century of black life in Washington, D.C., some of these pieces (five of which were first published in the New Yorker) have the heft and breadth of novels—many weigh in unapologetically at 30 pages or more. Jones' eye is tender and sorrowful but unsentimental, his language refined yet accessible, and his portraiture deft. His quiet compassion and delicate awareness are grounded by a faint but persistent bass note of disillusionment.
In addition to his appearance at the Regulator and McIntyre's with authors from New Stories from the South, Jones will read from All Aunt Hagar's Children at Quail Ridge Books and Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7. —Adam Sobsey