New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008
Edited by ZZ Packer
Algonquin Books, 428 pp.

In her introduction to New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008, ZZ Packer, co-editor of the collection, calls the American South “a land of contrasts.”

“There’s the sweet tea, and the bourbon, and the mint juleps,” she writes. “But there’s also the low-brow Rally’s and Checkers and White Castles.” Indeed, it’s true that Dixie contains multitudes: The South, which includes the Ozarks and the Outer Banks, the Pisgah and the Piedmont, has given us Ralph Stanley and R.E.M., Ludacris and Little Richard. A region that prizes its rural past and its idiosyncratic culture is eager to pave over its farm land and fill it with McMansions and numbingly familiar chain stores.

Packer, the 35-year-old fiction writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and similar journals, chooses to divide the population of the South into two culturally distinct categories: “Southerners” and “southerners.” Just as “Catholic” and “catholic” have different definitions, “Southerner” is not the same as “southerner.”

“Southerners, in full possession of that capital ‘S,’ stroll through life with an unassailable sense of right and wrong,” Packer explains. “Right: chicken-fried steak, Jesus, zero taxation; wrong: vegetarianism, psychiatry, Birkenstocks. The ‘southerner,’ lowercase, does not stroll so much as simper.” Hers is a simplistic dichotomy, yes, but it rings true nonetheless.

The fundamental difference between Southerners and southerners, Packer argues, is the relationship each group has with the history of the South: “The Southerner has pride in the past glories of the South while the southerner stakes pride in the small daily miracles of the Souththe progress that is made each day of our lives, often absent any visible examples.”

Unsurprisingly, Packer calls herself a southernerin the first sentence of the first paragraph on the first page. Born in Chicago, raised in Louisville and Atlanta, she left Dixie in the ’80s to study at Yale. Today she’s a Californian. Perhaps because her experiences aren’t exclusively of the South, Packer is drawn to both the nostalgic and banal versions of Dixie, stories that “straddle the southern-Southern divide, stories that paradoxically evoked the mythic South as well as the somewhat bastard south.”

So, in the stories that make up Packer’s selections, cell phone towers and oil platforms break the horizon, emus graze next to longhorns, and characters drive Volvos. There is music by Roy Acuff and Bauhaus, Ernest Tubb and Joy Division.

There is little or no sentimentalism in the 20 pieces Packer selected for the collection. More often than not, characters witness violence and social decay, the transformation of a familiar environment into something they cannot recognize.

In “Back of Beyond,” by North Carolinian Ron Rash, the owner of a pawnshop watches his small town succumb to methamphetamine addiction. At the beginning of the story, a woman enters his shop, desperate, hoping to hawk a wooden butter churn and her high school class ring. He cannot help but stare at “the stubbed brown ruin inside her mouth.” The psychostimulant has rotted her teeth.

“He could see her face now, sunken cheeks and eyes, furrows pruning the pale skin. He saw where the bones, impatient, poked at her cheeks and chin. The eyes glossy but alive, restless and needful.”

Pinckney Benedict’s “Bridge of Sighs” is a wonderful, apocalyptic story with a similar theme: A town is afflicted by a pathogen its residents are powerless to understand or control. An epizootic disease, “running mad in those days, sweeping through the highlands like wildfire,” threatens livestock. Town residents worry that the disease could infect humans, and they fret about genetic mutation. The narrator is the son of an exterminator whose job is to put down cattle and burn barns. Destruction, he says, is for the greater good.

Many of these stories, bordering on too many, are coming-of-age stories. Bildungsromans in miniature: A teenager comes to terms with his or her identity, often on a sticky summer evening. Of these stories, the best are those about characters who do not identify as Southerners (or southerners, for that matter). In “The Ease of Living,” by Amina Gautier, one of the finest pieces in this collection, Jason, an African-American teenager, born and raised in New York City, is sent to Tallahassee to stay with his grandfather. His friends, Kiki and Steven, have been killed, and Jason’s mother has had enough.

In “So This Is Permanence,” Sarah, a punk teenager, has given birth to a baby she did not want. More than anything, Sarah wants to escape the confines of her home and the coastal community in which she has grown up. One night, she leaves. She reunites with friends, smokes and drinks. At the end of the evening, Sarah wades into the warm Gulf, transfixed by an oil platform, flickering in the distance, “so small, so isolated, that it might have been sparked by a fisherman’s Zippo.”

Her father was a rigger, two weeks on, two weeks off. And Sarah, burdened with new, unwanted responsibility, envies how his job provided a seemingly easy escape from the everyday: “When the harder questions of living begged for answers, they were off again to the rigs, questions forgotten, decisions unmade.” She, like many of the characters in Packer’s collection, is captive in the South, part of the place, unable to leave.