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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Year in Review: Notable North Carolina literary fiction and nonfiction

Posted by on Tue, Dec 29, 2015 at 9:49 AM

click to enlarge David Joy, author of Where All Light Tends to Go, one of the best novels from North Carolina in 2015. - PHOTO BY ANDREW RHEW
  • photo by Andrew Rhew
  • David Joy, author of Where All Light Tends to Go, one of the best novels from North Carolina in 2015.
What does it even mean to read local?

That was the question I confronted while thinking about how to cover the year in books from North Carolina. It’s easy to answer in areas like visual art, theater and dance: The artists live here, put up work here and share creative and social networks.

But the solitary world of writers is different—more dispersed and amorphous, with less emphasis on site-specific performance and more emphasis on the artifact that, if it succeeds, untangles from its origins to become timeless and placeless, absorbed into the phantom state of literature.

Without a dedicated gathering place like the theater or gallery, the authors of such books may not even know one another, much less exist in a coherent artistic community. The more famous a book becomes—the more national reviews and awards it earns—the less distinctly local it becomes, too. Authors who publish with established houses, often in New York or other major urban centers, might live here or even set their books here, but they do their work on the national stage.

I decided the realest way to conceptualize an entity called local fiction was to focus on the indie scene, which is why I asked Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, the Durham-based publisher of online magazine Bull Spec, to take on the INDY’s Top 10 local books of 2015 list. Sam reads more local books, by a wide margin, than anyone I know; he is a tirelessly enthusiastic tracker, supporter and leader of the local lit scene.

I also thought it apt that the list should be heavy on speculative fiction, a rubric that encompasses sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history and other genres on the fantastical end of the genre spectrum. It’s the predominant concern among the Triangle’s indie authors, the ones who are ardently and visibly hosting events, giving readings, reviewing one another’s work and mustering forces on social media, from Sam's spec-fic events to the Noir at the Bar crime-fiction nights hosted by Eryk Pruitt, author of the Southern crime novels Dirtbags and Hashtag.

Many of these authors are self-published or work with small, agile imprints born of the Internet, and while they may not always earn the national notices of Allan Gurganus or John Darnielle (whose National Book Award nomination for Wolf in White Van last year was the Triangle’s biggest literary nod in a while), they are the ones who give literature a palpable presence within the state rather than polishing its reputation abroad.

I hasten to add that I’m not anatomizing a problem. There is nothing wrong with the diffusion of literary fiction writers. The remote publishing and distribution structure of books makes the field naturally tend to have a less strongly developed local terroir. The indie authors may be the wave of the future, but it's not a future that needs to displace the past. We can have our bounty of local authors creating an on-the-ground literary culture as well as university-affiliated or MFA-trained ones who are dispatching to the wider world, and it’s all good for North Carolina.

Still, as a writer in the area, I have sometimes wished for the same robust, diverse social networks and gathering places the other arts have—where writers of all stripes have more common cause in the sense that they could do what they do nowhere but here. Local genre writers are most vividly imagining what that might look like, an achievement that deserved commemoration in our pages. But make no mistake, there were plenty of more traditionally literary titles from our state that made a local and national impact in 2015.

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My favorite was David Joy’s Where All Light Tends to Go (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), which The New York Times called “a remarkable first novel” and “an extraordinarily intimate experience.” An arrested coming-of-age tale set in meth-wrecked rural North Carolina, it begs for grabby Breaking Bad references (mea culpa), but its arc curves in the opposite direction. Where Walter White dove into a life of crime, Jacob McNeely, born in it, is trying to swim upward.

Praised by Winter’s Bone author Daniel Woodrell, whose country-noir it resembles, Joy's book is driven by character rather than crime in a world that is bleak and savage but full of heart. Fiction about the rural South isn't one of my main predilections, but I was deeply drawn in by Joy's alert sensitivity to language and psychology, his spare, fast, hard-faceted prose and his knack for drawing scenes of eruptive violence as horrible rather than thrilling. You feel safe in the hands of a writer leading you to danger with care, like someone you can't see propelling you by the elbows, lightly but firmly, down a dark hallway. 

Joy, a longtime resident of the Blue Ridge Mountains, studied at Western Carolina University with Ron Rash, another writer who brings a poetic sensibility to the direst straits of Appalachian life. Rash, whose acclaimed novels have been adapted into not-so-acclaimed films (The World Made Straight, Serena), is a New York Times bestseller who the paper calls one of the great American fiction writers working today. In 2015, he published the novel Above the Waterfall (Ecco), a confident hybrid of prose and poetry. Dealing with an embryonic love affair between a park ranger and a retiring sheriff who each have heavy traumas in their pasts, it sounds like typically downbeat Rash fare. But he strikes hopeful notes that admit a greater share of the human experience. “The danger is, if you’re always writing about darkness, you’re not being true to the world, because there’s great joy and wonder,” Rash told The Wall Street Journal. Readers will find both here.

Several 2015 titles are lingering on my to-finish list, based on the national responses to them. I don’t read young-adult fiction, so I'm behind on Chapel Hill’s Sarah Dessen, though she is undoubtedly one of the highest-profile writers in the state. While Rash lightened up, Dessen got darker in Saint Anything (Viking Books for Young Readers), a TIME Top 10 Children's Book of 2015, which finds its protagonist dealing with her brother’s imprisonment.

Cold Mountain author Charles Frazer called Liza Wieland’s Land of Enchantment (Syracuse University Press) “a beautifully written, dizzyingly knowledgeable examination of the intersection between art and life.” Wieland, recipient of several regional awards and grants for her prior books, teaches writing at East Carolina University, and her technical skill is apparent in the novel’s opening passages as it begins deftly weaving together the fates of three female, mixed-race artists around 9/11, a lightning rod for a complex history.

And if Winston-Salem resident Charlie Lovett’s Dickens pastiche, The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge (Viking), is half the bookish fun of the former antiquarian book dealer’s bestselling The Bookman’s Tale or his Jane Austen homage, First Impressions, I need to keep it on the bedside table, too.

Of course, in an area dominated by prominent research and liberal arts universities, 2015 produced a bumper crop of notable nonfiction. Naturally, in an area like the South, much of it deals with race. One of the best was not from but about North Carolina: Scott Ellsworth’s The Secret Game (Little, Brown and Company) is a deeply researched account of the South’s first interracial college basketball game, in 1943, between the N.C. College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) and the all-white team from Duke. Duke's med school is also the setting for Damon Tweedy’s Black Man in a White Coat (Macmillan), a heartfelt memoir of navigating racial prejudice in the halls of medicine.

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N.C. State religious studies professor Jason C. Bivins’ Spirits Rejoice! (Oxford University Press) is a groundbreaking, contentious exploration of the relationship between faith and jazz. Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South (AK Press), edited by locals Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, is a radical history of slave uprisings, labor movements and other historical moments of resistance in the South. Writing Down the Walls (Trans-Genre Press), published by Chapel Hill’s AJ Bryce, is a rough-hewn but essential compendium of fiction, poetry and memoir by LGBTQ authors who draw on experiences so pressing and real that I felt compelled to mention the anthology here rather than among the fiction.

And on the lighter side of nonfiction, Irrationally Yours: On Missing Socks, Pickup Lines, and Other Existential Puzzles (Harper Perennial), by Duke behavioral economics expert Dan Ariely, collects his advice columns from The Wall Street Journal, where he answers questions financial, social and existential in a humorous, erudite way. The instantly recognizable New Yorker cartoonist William Haefeli provides illustrations.

Finally, two essay anthologies made my dream of a true community of literary writers feel a little realer. Carolina Writers at Home (Hub City Press), edited by Meg Reid, offers glimpses into the houses of some of the Carolinas’ leading writers, including Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus and Clyde Edgerton, accompanied by Rob McDonald’s photographs. And Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers (UNC Press), edited by Marianne Gingher, features the likes of McCorkle, Lee Smith, Michael Parker and Belle Boggs celebrating or grappling with the place they call home. Both, especially the latter, are essential reads for anyone trying to figure out what it means to read local, and what North Carolina literature is beyond the shapes of the state's geography and the echoes of its fraught racial history. 

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