By: Gerald Duff
Reviewed by: Kirk Curnutt
NewSouth Books, 2007
The author of Memphis Ribs and Coasters returns with fifteen stories that are both geographically and temporally diverse, ranging from Texas to Baltimore and the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. Duff is that rare writer that can conjure up Dixie eccentricities without demeaning his characters. Opening sentences such as “Bobby Shepard smelled bad” (“The Anglers’ Paradise Fish-Cabin Dance of Love”) and “Quentin Vest had always trusted policemen, even back when everybody called them pigs” (“The Officer Responding”) introduce us to folk who, however gawky, are never reduced to O’Connoresque grotesques to be debased for reader amusement. The scenarios likewise land this side of clever, as opposed to the gratuitously absurd. “Charm City” manages to tweak literary pretension without discounting the lure of creative writing in a story about a none-too-artistic man drawn to poetry readings.
The titular story—which originally appeared in Ploughshares—deftly employs those most Shermanesque of Southern pests as a metaphor for the hotbed of interracial dependency. And in the sharply staged interior monologue “A Perfect Man,” what could have been a flat-out parody of religious faith ends up doggedly respecting the pragmatic tenacity necessary to maintain it in an exploitative world in which a decent woman is forced to trade favors to bail her son out of jail.
From time to time there are perhaps a few too many references to the pop side of skidding Southern culture—is at least one Andy and Barney reference obligatory in any story set to the Kentucky side of Indiana these days?—but for the most part Duff keeps the Bobbie Ann Masons to a minimum.
Interestingly, the most compelling stories tend to be the ones written in the first person. “Believing in Memphis” makes disillusionment sympathetic when a broken-down songwriter can’t help but [urinate] on the dreams of (admittedly unlearned) novices hoping to make it big in Elvis territory. As a Civil War story, “Maryland, My Maryland,” captures the strain of Confederate speech as it attempts to maintain gentility in the face of Yankee contempt. And in “The Bliss of Solitude,” an old man condemned to the “SoFloRetFac”—a Sunshine State retirement home for aged “stars”—testifies to his devotion to the heroine of his life, a woman he knows as Elsie Flattman but whom the rest of the world remembers as a Carmen Mirandaesque fire starter nicknamed “the Cuban Chili Pepper.”
As the author of six novels, Duff has waited a long time to gather his stories in book form. Both fun and funny, but most of all humane, Fire Ants is a template for story writers seeking to balance range with unity. No one entry quite resembles another, and yet together they feel a piece of a world gone slightly askew.
Kirk Curnutt is the author of Baby, Let’s Make a Baby, Plus Ten More Stories and the novel Breathing Out the Ghost.