In search of great Southern lit

by Jess

I’m kind of on a Southern (or country, in some cases) lit kick right now. It’s a combination of things: homesickness; a desire to delve deeply into my family’s history; The Big Read, a  community reading project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts; and just sort of stumbling upon some authors.

I read Daniel Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister a few months back, and if it were only in the budget, I’d head to the local bookstore right this second (okay, you got me, I’d have to wait until the boys woke up from their nap) and buy their whole selection of his novels.  Woodrell is among the best contemporary authors I’ve read. I’d been considering buying Give Us A Kiss because the introduction is written by Pinckney Benedict, but then I read in this interview that the character Ree from Winter’s Bone is a sort of spiritual descendent of True Grit‘s Mattie Ross.

And it just so happens that I’ve just read Charles Portis’ True Grit in preparation for The Big Read, and I thought Mattie was the best young female character I’ve read since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Incidentally, I passed along True Grit for C. to read because I knew he’d like it, and he did, finishing it up in two days. I think he’s ready to graduate to All the Pretty Horses.

In the midst of True Grit, I was also plugging away at William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. It’s been years since I’ve read Faulkner’s work, and then it was only a couple of his many novels. There’s something dark and electrifying about Faulkner’s way of writing that makes my heart pound — even when I don’t necessarily know what’s going on or just exactly how everyone is related.  It makes me think of my own family, and of the secret shames and burdens that we all carry within us. The long, convoluted section of “The Bear” was deeply moving to me in its compassionate treatment of the fallout from the Civil War on both sides of the race issue. I think Faulkner is the writer I’d most like to imitate, but I’m a long, long way off.

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice blew me away and had me homesick for Virginia in the worst kind of way — there was just something about the cadence of his narrator’s speech and the images he invoked of the Tidewater that made me feel like I was going home. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it before, but I’m excited to work through his other novels. It’s the first book in a long, long time that caused me to keep a pen and paper nearby so I could write down words I wanted to look up (I think I last did that with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though to a lesser degree).

And then, a few months back, I happened upon Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation” in Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. It’s one that I’ve read before, but re-reading it at such a different stage of my life resulted in an astoundingly different reading experience. I was shaken. I’d been cruising along smug and self-satisfied, when I realized, That’s me, utterly disgusted with the sudden view I had of myself, I’m Mrs. Turpin, always thinking that I’m better than others or more deserving. I’ll tell you what, if I ever start getting too big for my britches, one of you just remind me to read “Revelation” again for a little tough love.

So that’s that. Who else am I missing? What else should I be reading? I feel like I can’t get enough of that dark, pregnant Southern writing, the feel of thick humidity, the parched peanuts and ham biscuits and whiskey, the smells and sounds and voices of home.