South Carolina writer George Singleton’s new story “Half-Mammals of Dixie” goes something like this: Aquarium salesman meets girl with tic-tac-toe scar while listening to motivational speaker. Aquarium salesman gets girl, who turns out to be motivational speaker’s daughter. Before Aquarium salesman and girl can ride off into the sunset, they get stuck behind a truck that advertises “World’s Largest Alligators.”
Slated to be published in the January issue of Harper’s Magazine, Singleton’s story is an example of a trend in Southern letters that long-time editor of The Greensboro Review Jim Clark calls “extreme fiction.” An extreme Southern story has a surrealistic, bizarre ending. It might have been influenced by some bad egg foo yung and a particularly weird episode of The X-Files, or a late-night viewing of Pulp Fiction. Although it has roots in the grotesques of Flannery O’Connor, this new form of fiction has one significant difference: It is told from the first-person point of view.
Asked to point to other writers of this particular style, Clark mentions Alamance County native Dale Ray Phillips, whose novel-in-stories My People’s Waltz was published by W.W. Norton last year. Take Phillips’ story “The Woods at the Back of Our Houses” as an example. There are no aquarium salesmen or motivational speakers–but the story does feature an orphan boy with three testicles and a waltzing drunken Swede who lets pubescent boys have their way with her. Phillips is exploring ground, Clark says, that few writers dare to tread. “Way in the back of our houses, there is a dark place that people can’t see into,” he says.
The big danger for these literary adventurers is that the bizarre can turn into caricature. In the preface to the 1989 New Stories From the South, editor Shannon Ravenel quotes Pat Conroy to show how Southern fiction can become like an episode of Hee-Haw. Conroy said that his mother once told him that all Southern fiction was based on one story that went something like this: “On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Papa did with Sister.”
Clark explains that Singleton and Phillips walk the fine line between extreme and Hee-Haw. So how are they and other Southern writers like Lewis Nordan, Padgett Powell and Larry Brown able to examine these dark places without turning them into sideshows that readers from other parts of the country can gawk and laugh at?
Singleton, whose stories have appeared in New Stories From the South and Playboy, calls Phillips’ “The Woods at the Back of Our Houses” a “dad and lad” story. The story indeed has a dad: recently broken up with his wife and dreaming of sailing Cape Hatteras in one of a collection of wrecked boats. The lad, the narrator of the story, tries to cope with his father’s eccentricities and his mother’s absence. Clark says this story works because it melds more traditional elements of Southern fiction, like the grotesque, with more modern elements like self-conscious first-person narration.
When queried about trends in the submissions they receive, Clark and several other N.C. fiction publishers said they get more first-person stories than they used to. Margaret Bauer, editor of the North Carolina Literary Review, which only accepts stories with a North Carolina connection, says one explanation for an increase in first-person stories is Southern culture. “In the South, it is more acceptable to tell your own story.”
Algonquin editor Duncan Murrell says he also sees more first-person stories. “The first-person point of view is more modern, or, as Wallace Stevens put it, ‘I was the world in which I walked,’ and it’s also accessible to writers of varying skill.”
Clark misses the objectivity of the third-person point of view story. He attributes part of this loss of objectivity to the media. “In the news media and in stories you’re getting lots of world-according-to-me kind of stuff rather than an objective, journalistic view of the world. A third-person story embraces the big world instead of ‘my tiny world.’”
Murrell thinks the lack of third-person stories reflects not just a distrust of the media, but also a distrust in a higher power. “The third-person omniscient point of view is the point of view of the gods, and the gods aren’t as credible as they once were. It’s a favorite of mine, but to most modern readers, third-person omniscience seems quaint, stuffy, and ironically, naive,” he says.
Singleton claims he feels limited by the objectivity that comes with a third-person point of view. The first-person story allows for freedoms that aren’t as possible with a third-person story. “They’re more fun. You can do more with the narrator. You can be more lyrical.” Singleton says he found his voice as a writer by writing several first-person stories in a row. The danger, he says, is that all his stories start sounding alike. But he isn’t too worried about it. “I’ll ride that damn pony right into the sunset,” he says.
Third-person omniscience was O’Connor’s chosen point of view. But if O’Connor’s characters were frequently Christ-haunted, Phillip’s characters are haunted by the past, and Singleton’s characters are often obsessed by it. And while O’Connor’s stories frequently lead up to an inevitable religious revelation, an extreme Southern story often has a more unpredictable ending.
Singleton compares the ending of a modern Southern story to a sudden encounter with a feisty dog. “The dog has two things he can do: attack you with his fangs bared, or he’s gonna sit there and shiver, then he’s gonna attack you. A Southern story is like that: It’s a little bit unpredictable. Something big is gonna happen. You don’t know what, but you know it’s gonna be big.”
Many of the stories that Clark used to see ended in an entirely different way. “It used to be if a writer didn’t know how to end a story he killed his characters or got them drunk or on drugs.”
In N.C. poet laureate Fred Chappell’s latest collection of poetry, Family Gathering, a narrator pokes fun at various colorful relatives. Clearly in the poem “Adventures in Perception,” Chappell is also poking fun at the idea of objectivity.
Is Rather Fat
But thinks he’s skin and bones
Aunt Jill is thin
As her bright hairpin
But thinks she weighs a ton.
The theme of self-perception has appeared often in Chappell’s work, and his short-story collection More Shapes than One includes tales as fantastic and surreal as Singleton’s and Phillips’, even if the points of view are distinctly different. Chappell’s fiction and poetry are part of a trend away from objectivity that has affected a younger generation of Southern writers. At a recent reading, the author half-jokingly claimed he waited for relatives to die to publish Family Gathering. Bauer says this is also a particularly traditional Southern sensibility.
“[Southern] storytelling is OK as long as nobody is getting hurt. You’re not supposed to tell certain stories. If the issues are still touchy, [Southern writers] are not going to write about it.”
Phillips’ and Singleton’s stories indicate that the rules may be changing. If this is the case, then the aquarium salesmen and three-testicled orphans of the world better watch out.
“I’m not making fun of people,” Singleton says. “But I wouldn’t want to be the people either.”