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A list by Barrett Hathcock, author of the forthcoming novel The Portable Son, from Aqueous Books.
Here is my list of Great Southern Fiction, highly idiosyncratic and incomplete, to be sure. I’m not saying these are the ten best works of southern fiction ever, but they’re certainly a good start. There are many ways to define southern literature—literature written by writers born and/or raised and/or living in the South or fiction set in the South. But I think the most productive definition, and the one employed here, is fiction that’s about the South as a cultural space.
1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Big Bang. At this point in human history, there is nothing interesting I can say about this book. Just go read it. Though with the release of Twain’s autobiography this year, it’s amazing to realize that he was alive just 100 years ago.
2. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
If it’s not the greatest southern novel of all time, it’s certainly in the top three. Epic in scope and beastly difficult to read, it’s like Infinite Jest in that you just have to submit to the unwieldy bastard. All the work turns out to be worth it. It’s about Thomas Sutpen’s attempt to build a southern dynasty, and Quentin Compson, of The Sound the Fury fame, encounters that dynasty as it goes up in flames. All of the main southern tropes are here: fathers and sons, women and marriage and procreation, a lost white aristocracy, incest, family ties like barbed-wire, and miscegenation. A good book to read over Thanksgiving.
3. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
It’s sort of like the southern version of The Great Gatsby. Loosely modeled after the career of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, it’s worth it for the fraught love and betrayal between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton. Epic, operatic, frequently overwritten, the novel is the template for all politically engaged southern fiction in the South—politics as populist, oedipal corruption; the misery of the conscientious man to the “man of fact”; and being confused about who your real daddy is.
4. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
The Southern Virginia Woolf—dense and lyrical, concerned with the mind’s moonings, yet obsessed with conversation at the same time. She’s the great regionalist who transcends any constrictions that regionalism might imply. She’s the originally cartographer of the inland empire, though the stories can be proto-Lynchian themselves at times. There is an audio “book” you can download of Welty herself reading three of her best stories from her first collection, A Curtain of Green, originally published in 1941. The stories are: “Petrified Man,” “Why I Live at the P.O.,” and “Powerhouse.” You’ll love it with your mouth. Smooch.
5. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
The great moral cartoonist of southern literature. Meanly funny and one of the sharpest writers ever. She makes Updike seem vague and cuddly. It’s sad reading this book, though, knowing that it’s the complete stories; O’Connor died of lupus at 39. Only book recommended her where someone loses a fake leg.
6. The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor
The most underrated southern writer. He is more Henry James than Flannery O’Connor, focused on the upper crust of Nashville and Memphis. College friends with Robert Lowell and Allen Tate, Taylor’s stories are wonderfully digressive and circular and exude the verbal joy of a raconteur. The only problem with this book is that it isn’t long enough—literally. He released The Old Forest and Other Stories after this collection, which contains some of his best work; he’s in desperate need of a new expanded omnibus collection to put him in the same league with O’Connor and Welty. Start with “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.”
7. Airships by Barry Hannah
Hannah, who died just last March, kept alive the wacky-gothic mode of southern literature for a generation. Another writer’s writer, a secret handshake among many, Hannah can be seen as a stylistic extension of O’Connor, but a cartoonist using darker, more lurid colors, where the violence in the content jumps the fence into the prose itself.
8. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Binx Bolling—surely one of the best names in 20th century literature—is an angst-filled New Orleans stock-broker who identifies more with movies than his life. Insert “websites” for movies and you’ve basically got a book about all of your friends.
9. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, as well as the movie
I know what you’re thinking, and I wish I didn’t have to include it, but any way you slice it GWtW, first the book and then more pervasively the movie, codified Southern culture in the mass imagination. Whether you enjoy the work sincerely, snicker at it politically, or watch it ironically, Rhett, Scarlett, and I-don’t-know-nothing-about-birthing-babies Prissy have seeped into the culture, become iconic. It’s basically cellular at this point. “Best” here might be translated into most thoroughly influential.
10. Deliverance by James Dickey, as well as the movie
Again, the movie adaptation turns out to be as important as the original source text, as it too has become a cultural touchstone. And though it’s primarily remembered now for the dueling banjos bit and the squeal-like-a-pig bit, I would say that it really capitalized on a Southern fear, that is, the fear of the citified, office-working white male as he goes into the rural outback, where his prehistoric ancestors live. It’s the story of the gentry encountering the ancestors they left behind, and the reason that the squeal-like-a-pig bit is such a still-current joke is because it still reveals a current fear and division.