By: Joe Taylor with Debbie Davis, Gerald Jones, and Tina Jones, eds.
Reviewed by: Kirk Curnutt
Livingston Press, 2006
$26, Hardback; $14.95, Paperback
Having had the good fortune a few years back to be selected for an anthology of emerging writers (Full disclosure: it, too, was published by Livingston Press), I can heartily testify to both the fun and fear that comes with belonging to the sort of virtual community that a collection like this one creates. In essence, anthologies provide writers a peer group against whose themes, styles, and motifs they can measure their individual interests and begin firming up their own literary outlook and values. The downside is that seeing your name among better-known folks can be intimidating; even worse is happening on a story you doubt you yourself could have written.
It would be interesting to know how alternately compelled and cowed the emerging writers are that Joe Taylor has included in this second compendium of winners from the Tartt First Fiction Award, for the quality is high. In fact, there’s not a stinker among them. Reading the book made me glad I had the good luck to get a story collection out before I ever submitted to the Tartt. I doubt I’d have placed in such a competitive environment.
Singling out favorites here seems a little unfair to those who might not get mentioned, yet several stories deserve notice for their experimentation. Naomi Benaron—who seems to have placed in just about every fiction competition available in the past few years—takes on the tricky task of that burgeoning genre known as the “e-mail epistolary” in “Love Letters from a Fat Man.” A one-sided correspondence between a Marlene Dietrich fan and an addressee known only as “firstname.lastname@example.org,” the story captures the pathos of people who ride the endless wire of the Internet hoping for a connection. In “Carl, Under His Car,” the highly alliterative Christopher Chambers manipulates chronology to capture the vivid intensity of a life flashing before a man’s eyes during an accident. Wendy Dutton’s “The Engaging and Sometimes Repulsive Way of the Natural World” employs off-key title cards (“My Life as an Eskimo,” “The Breasts of the Mango Sisters”) to segment her plot into vignettes that both intensify and speed up the surreal action. Those who follow Birmingham Southern College’s annual Hackney Awards will recognize Jimmy Carl Harris, whose “Hot and Sunny on the Fourth” unexpectedly shifts tone in its closing paragraphs to explore the unhealed wounds of Vietnam. Finally, Scott McWaters in “Developing Story” crafts a metatextual frame to critique media perceptions of Alabama racism, both past and present.
Such experimental devices reveal how steeped these writers are in the tricks of the trade. In the end, “emerging” is a bit of a misnomer; most of the folks Taylor included here are alumni of well-known MFA programs. Many have been widely published in prestigious journals—whether the Kenyon or Missouri Reviews—and several have placed high in esteemed contests. They are only considered “emerging” because, apropos of Tartt competition requirements, they had not published a collection at the time of their selection for this book. (At least two have since). Ultimately, the category of “emerging” says more about the sorry state of the shrinking book market than it reflects any element of novicedom implied by Tartt 2’s subtitle. The contributors here are seasoned vets.
Kirk Curnutt is the author of Baby, Let’s Make a Baby, Plus Ten More Stories and the novel Breathing Out the Ghost.