Best of LSU Fiction

Edited by Nolde Alxius and Judy Kahn

The Southern Review 2010

"Whenever there was a flood, people from half the county would come down to see the sight. After a gully-washer there would not be any work to do anyway. If it didn’t ruin your crop, you couldn’t plow and you felt like taking a holiday to celebrate. If it did ruin your crop, there wasn’t anything to do except try to take your mind off the mortgage, if you were rich enough to have a mortgage, and if you couldn’t afford a mortgage you needed something to take your mind off how hungry you would be by Christmas. So people would come down to the bridge and look at the flood. It made something different from the run of days."

Reviewed by Amy Charles

Best of LSU Fiction leads, as it must, with a short story by Robert Penn Warren. Warren is LSU’s escaped star; from Kentucky originally, he spent 1933-42 teaching at Louisiana State, and while there cofounded its literary magazine, The Southern Review. His array of prizes and achievements is a distraction from the writing and yet I must, with some irony, note that he was the first U.S. Poet Laureate and a major force in New Criticism, which importuned readers to pay attention to the work itself and not the writer, his time, or any other externality. His novel All the King’s Men remains a classic of American literature and won him his first Pulitzer Prize (two others were in poetry); he was, in important ways, a public and guiding literary and intellectual voice. Warren left LSU and headed north to Minnesota, thence to Yale, where he spent the next nearly forty years.

I hesitate to describe the Warren story in this book, Blackberry Winter; it’s been anthologized plenty but not worn out, certainly not in recent decades, written as it was by a white man from the American South (we have one of those for the roster, after all; his name is Faulkner, and he wrote two very old and probably irrelevant or even racist stories, A Rose for Emily and Barn Burning). I hesitate because I have no intention at all of ruining this story for the reader, and by itself it’s worth the price of the book. So I will yield the excerpt above and the fact that the story is set long ago on a farm in Tennessee, with the narrator telling what he saw as a nine-year-old boy. Beyond that I’ll say only that it takes profound understanding of human trials and ways to make a reader burst into tears at the end without knowing why, and make her wait for her understanding to catch up with emotion. His prose is as fine as you would expect, and you should read it.

The other nineteen stories in the book cannot, unfortunately, compare favorably with the first, and it would be unreasonable to expect them to. But they are a paean to a much-beloved writing program that has been a home to Southern writers since its founding, and readers with a particular interest in American writing programs will enjoy the biographical details that preface each story. Notable in the collection are journalist John Ed Bradley’s college-town novel excerpt, Famous Days, and Rebecca Wells’ story of local betrayal, E-Z Boy War. Bradley’s story reads like a polished draft, not a finished story, but the voice is measured and careful, not exceeding its abilities and refusing to showboat; a scene with a man discovering his wrecked car is clear, moving, and genuine. You get the sense that Bradley knows what’s important in the commerce between people. Wells, best known for her blockbuster 1996 novel, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, knows a story when she sees one and can tell it like a pro, which is more than can be said of most people walking around with MFAs.

Other familiar names abound. A Walker Percy story, slow and rather watery, chronicles a student’s loneliness and his first tentative steps in becoming a dual citizen of New York and the South; the work of Vance Bourjaily, who passed away recently, is also included. Jean Stafford’s outraged and autobiographical fever dream, The Interior Castle, is highly wrought. Andrei Codrescu’s short pieces are representative and will be familiar to NPR listeners, complete with trademark accent and broad-gauge irony. Moira Crone is, perhaps, less well-known than these others, but her Gaugin pulls off something remarkable: she uses the work of a major painter without making the reader wish she was looking at the painting instead of reading the story. And James Wilcox, familiar to readers of the New York Times Book Review, has a sure and literary voice in his Camping Out.

The volume overall is, I am sure, of great interest to those connected with LSU’s writing program and others who are curious about the relationships among generations of LSU writers, also to those who want a glimpse of the stories that come from that place. But I confess I am distracted by LSU’s moment with Robert Penn Warren, and must recommend his long poem Brother to Dragons, which is also published by LSU Press. I’d been carrying this book from apartment to apartment for years without reading it, and I ought to have paid attention to Randall Jarrell’s blurb on the front cover, declaring it Warren’s best work. This is an astonishingly good poem, involving Thomas Jefferson, his kin, and the murder of a young slave; within five pages we are down at the crux of the blind and grotesque racial evil in the U.S. Constitution, a mythic view that as a Northerner I hadn’t the wit to notice. It is obviously and tragically true once Warren has pointed it out: "And doom is always domestic, it purrs like a cat/And the absolute traitor lurks in some sweet corner of the blood."

Amy Charles is genteel only under duress. She lives in Iowa City and is working on two books which may be done before she’s dead. One is a story collection called It’ll Be Nice; the other, Mr. Photosynthesis, is a history of the Calvin photosynthesis lab at Berkeley.

Amy's other Short Reviews: Richard Yates "Collected Stories"
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Editors Nolde Alexius and Judy Kahn are instructors in the English department of Louisiana State University.