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News & Reviews

The Bear Bryant Funeral Train

By: Brad Vice
Reviewed by: Joey Kennedy
River City Publishing, 2007
$16.95, Paperback

Before ever getting to the ten stories in this collection from Tuscaloosa native Brad Vice, we must deal with the nastiness. In this instance, that’s the plagiarism. Or, according to some critics, the multiple plagiarisms that spoiled Vice’s debut and, more importantly, Vice’s literary reputation.

In 2005, Vice won the Flannery O’Connor Award for a first volume of short fiction: The Bear Bryant Funeral Train. But just after the University of Georgia Press published the stories, someone noticed similarities to Vice’s work and other works, most notably Carl Carmer’s classic Stars Fell on Alabama.

That just wouldn’t do. The University of Georgia Press yanked back the award, recalled the book, and destroyed every copy it could get its hands on. Vice was a disgrace.

Except . . . it was all a terrible mistake, a horrible misunderstanding. In this resurrected collection published by Montgomery’s River City Publishing, Vice tells his side of the ugly story, and he makes reasoned arguments and sound defenses. Vice also accepts responsibility and apologizes. If that weren’t enough, also included in the collection are four articles by scholars defending Vice. And Vice uses another three or so pages to make sure all parties who should be acknowledged or credited in any way certainly are.

Eventually, however, it’s the reader who must decide whether Vice is being cleverly creative or crassly criminal, and that’s where the ten stories have their say. In this resurrected volume, Vice includes the nine originals and a new offering, “Demopolis,” which is the best of the lot. Set mostly in Tuscaloosa, not Demopolis, Vice writes a modern Southern gothic tale through narrator William Gaultier, who is consumed with incurable TB and avian lung inflammation, and Gaultier’s girlfriend, Donna, a strange young woman with a psychological disorder that causes her to eat her hair. Reading “Demopolis,” one can see why Vice was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award. The story has a bizarre yet satisfying climax.

Still, overall, this collection reads unevenly. The book is divided into two five-story parts: “‘Stalin’ and Other Children’s Stories” and “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train.” Some stories are magnificently compelling (“Stalin” and “Demopolis”) while others, well, go off track (“Tuscaloosa Knights” and the title story, “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train.”)

In the end, reading this collection is not unlike taking a college-level short story class. It’s hard to fully and freely enjoy the works when there’s all this scholarship, apologizing, and acknowledging going on. Read it for the stories.

Joey Kennedy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The Birmingham News. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Alabama at Birmingham

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