Southern vs. southern

In ZZ Packer's introduction to the 23rd edition of Algonquin's anthology series, "New Stories From the South," the author of "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" draws a distinction between those she calls Southerners and those she calls southerners.

The Southerners embody the literary and cultural clichés of life below the Mason-Dixon Line. They eat chitlins and headcheese, and they "ooze with hospitality and charm" when they're not "tying up unsuspecting passers-by, Deliverance-style."

By contrast, the southerner "stakes his pride in the small daily miracles of the South -- the progress that is made each day of our lives."

Packer admits that her taste runs more to the southern than to the Southern, but she adds that in editing this year's New Stories anthology, she surprised herself by choosing a number of stories that "straddle the southern-Southern divide." To which I can say only, praise the Lord and pass the chitlins!

For while there are some perfectly nice southern stories in "New Stories From the South," the stories that thrill in this well-chosen anthology are the Southern ones -- the ones that don't avoid the clichés of Southern literature but smash into them head-on.

Take, for example, Clyde Edgerton's "The Great Speckled Bird," the story Edgerton expanded into his novel "The Bible Salesman," reviewed on these pages. What reads at first as textbook Southern Gothic, with a murderer and a thief hunting for victims, becomes both a playful raspberry at the Gothic tradition and a chilling ode to Flannery O'Connor when you realize the two characters are, essentially, the Misfit from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and the Bible salesman from "Good Country People."

And that isn't the only story that plays free and easy with some of the more overcooked aspects of Southern fiction.

Stephanie Soileau's "So This Is Permanence" is a hair-raising tale of the bad mother to end all bad mothers. Merritt Tierce's "Suck It" catalogs the degrading sexual exploits of a lost girl working as a steakhouse waitress. Jennifer Moses' gorgeous "Child of God" ends with an impassioned full-page prayer from a born-again AIDS patient. "Lizard Man," by David James Poissant, even features a little gator rasslin'.

Yet all four are terrific stories, and stories that benefit from the extra juice lent by some good old-fashioned Southern craziness.

The collection isn't perfect. For every quiet gem like Kevin Brockmeier's intuitively written chronicle of teenage love, "Andrea Is Changing Her Name," there's a story or two that quietly fail -- due often to an inability to straddle that southern-Southern line.

(One story fails loudly, thanks to an amateurish and-then-we-revealed-our-secrets climax that would feel embarrassing in an undergraduate fiction workshop. I'll spare the story's author, but I won't spare editor Packer: What were you thinking, ZZ?)

But all is forgiven when one gets to the collection's centerpiece, which hearkens all the way back to the historic epicenter of Southernness -- not just the Civil War, but Sherman's March.

R.T. Smith's "Wretch Like Me" is an impassioned reimagining of the end of the war as a guerrilla campaign, in which a tiny Confederate regiment harries and murders Union troops, night after terrible night. Vivid and terrifying, well-crafted yet as wild as a spooked horse, Smith's story is written with fire and fury and is utterly unforgettable.

Early in the story, we meet a Yankee prisoner, a New Yorker, who tells a story of "a shell-shot Rebel drummer not more than a dozen years on this earth with his front blown open like a butcher's display." The Yankee "could see the red beating heart as the boy whispered 'Lordy God' and died." When I finished "Wretch Like Me," I thought, I know how that kid felt.