In the preface to New Stories from the South 2001, Lee Smith offers her sushi bar (yes, hers–she’s part owner) as a “little case study in the New South.” Originally Carrboro’s Elite Café, with separate dining rooms for white and colored, now, 50 years later, Akai Hana employs people whose diverse backgrounds include Hispanic, Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, African-American and African.
Smith may be the only Appalachian novelist serving sushi on Saturday night, but the changes she documents are reflected in the work of her peers as well. “The House of Southern Fiction is in the process of remodeling,” Smith notes. And not surprisingly, the stories that result sometimes have construction sites of their own.
In William Gay’s “The Paperhanger,” a construction worker “boom[s] down the chains securing a backhoe,” and seems to secure the American dream–here in the form of a mansion for a Pakistani doctor and his wife. In Jane Shippen’s “I Am not Like Nuñez,” an American Four-Square, remodeled but still vacant, becomes the secret hiding place and fantasy house for a teenage girl and her half-Honduran half-brother. Places called home are still important in Southern fiction, but their inhabitants have grown more like hermit crabs, leading insular lives in one shell or tin can, then another. Yet the desire for permanence remains, like “the mint-condition Barbie Dream House” one character, in Marshall Boswell’s “In Between Things,” maintains in her musty-smelling rented duplex.
In the opening story of the collection, Moira Crone’s “Where What Gets Into People Comes From,” a character says: “A few of the people who live in the developments have been saying something must be missing, maybe they should go back and live downtown. Maybe they could be inside each other’s lives. … ” The idea that people aren’t inside each other’s lives recurs throughout the collection. The school bus driver in Kurt Rheinheimer’s story, “Shoes,” who knows all of the children on her route, is the exception rather than the rule. More often, as in Jim Grimsley’s story, “Jesus is Sending You This Message,” passengers ride side by side without speaking. The couple in Stephen Coyne’s “Hunting Country” doesn’t know what to make of their new neighbor with his little goatee and big smile. The wife thought he “was some sort of Yankee, or maybe he was just from Charlotte.”
With every theme “old and tried,” as Eudora Welty wrote, fiction shows us what we already know, the best short stories and novels revealing their truths inconspicuously, deepening our knowledge and understanding. The subtlety of many of the stories collected here make us forget that diversity, transience and disjunction are old news in the New South–but then again, the old news is new news, too, as the landscape continues to change.
Though the usual suspects are represented in this collection of stories published in magazines and journals within the last year–the Southern Review (with two stories) and the Georgia Review (with one)–three of the stories originally published below the Mason-Dixon line appeared in newcomer Meridian, founded in 1998 at the University of Virginia. Another welcome surprise is The New Yorker‘s “Saturday Morning Car Wash Club,” a comic story by James Ellis Thomas that belies the old notion that New Yorker stories are all the same. Other stories in the collection first appeared in magazines in Massachusetts, New York, Missouri, Ohio, Nebraska, Illinois and Canada–a list with variety, if not as much diversity as the staff of Lee Smith’s sushi bar.
In the title of her preface, “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy; or Losing the Mind of the South,” Smith alludes both to Alfred Uhry’s drama Driving Miss Daisy and W. J. Cash’s sociological study, The Mind of the South. The former relates the isolation of a Bible Belt Jew and her chauffeur, Hoke, in the segregated South. The latter examines the relationship between our social consciousness and our culture. In 1941, the same year that The Mind of the South first appeared in bookstores, W. J. Cash killed himself, outside of the South, in Mexico City.
The transformation of the old Elite Café would intrigue Mr. Cash; he might sit for hours scribbling notes in Akai Hana, perhaps pausing to join Miss Daisy and Hoke for some sushi and self-examination.