At the time I was asked to nominate a book for the Autumn Read This! selection, I had five pretty good titles on my short list of possible nominees and a few more set aside to read that looked promising. I didn't think it would be a problem to narrow it to one, but then something happened. Just a few days before the nomination was due and with my mind made up on a book to offer up as my choice, I happened across a review in Paste Magazine of a collection of short stories by a Southern writer that I'd never heard of, put out by a Southern publishing house that was completely new to me. In the review, Sidney Thompson's Sideshow was said to be "the South seen more through the prism of R.E.M. than William Faulkner. " Those of you familiar with my blog, Syntax of Things, know that I'm a sucker for things Southern, especially when it comes to writing (as well as music and food and baseball), so I had little choice but to get my hands on this collection. The folks at River City were nice enough to rush me a review copy at which time I was further intrigued by the blurbs on the cover from the likes of favorites Barry Hannah and George Singleton. That's how within a few days this book went from unknown, to top of my "To Be Read" list, to nominee for the Autumn Read This! selection.
Now I'm supposed to justify my nomination and tell all of you the virtues of this book in hopes that you'll grab a copy for yourself, which I certainly hope you do. And there's plenty in this book to talk about. For instance, there is something different about these stories, something a little off. Most of them are definitely "Southern" but Southern with a twist. And that's something that instantly attracted me to this collection. Thompson doesn't exactly shy away from Southern stereotypes and themes. We encounter racism, incest, animal (and human) cruelty, football. But not in the way you would expect. In Sideshow, Thompson seems at his best when he takes these most Southern of themes and, as R.E.M. would say, turns them inside out, the result being something even more gothic or dark or sinister than they would have been otherwise. And it's always risky to mess around with some of these, especially when a large chunk of your audience will more than likely be Southern. Realizing this, I think maybe it is that daring, unflinching honesty, the fact that in no way does this writer care what you or your cousin from Opp, Alabama, thinks, that ultimately led to my decision to nominate this book. That and the fact that I felt this collection deserves exposure outside of the limited coverage it seemed to be getting in the South.
There's certainly much more here to discuss, including an interesting bit of controversy surrounding one of the stories, but I'll save that for next week's discussion. For now, here's an excerpt from "The Floater," about a man's somewhat deranged attempt to regain his sense of identity:
So while the deer T-bone thawed in a sink of hot water, Larry went through the house switching the lights on in every room so that he could re-examine the past month's work and consider what remained ahead of him. After he gutted the house of all its wood paneling, carpeting, and melted ceiling tiles and linoleum, replaced the necessary studs, rafters, and floorboards, and painted Kilz over all remaining smoke-damaged wood, he had rewired the house, insulated it, and put in new windows, then done for himself what he did nearly every day at work for others. He'd hung the sheetrock, a task he'd finished only last night. Tomorrow he'd begin the floating, his specialty.
The process involved hiding all uncomely aspects of the sheetrock beneath layers of tape and mud, so that what remained for the painter were level lines from corner to every corner, even if the house wasn't square. He didn't exactly understand the name. All he could figure was that the person who'd come up with it must have noticed, as he had, that if you sink yourself to the bottom of Brushy Creek, you'll see there's enough silt and sand in the water to make whatever and whoever floating above appear too vague to be visible.
Sometimes people in the community would try hanging their own sheetrock, but nobody but a floater had better float it. Not unless they wanted rows of nail heads showing through on the walls like shirt buttons. But if they wanted their rooms to appear seamless and whole, as though one single wall folded into a box, or if they needed enough sheetrock mud troweled at the top and bottom to make a bowed wall appear plumb, then Larry was the man. And the stage of floating he liked best--even more than troweling over a nasty gash--was gently sanding the sheetrock, once it had dried, to a smooth finish with his sandstone, the size of a brick, and watching fine white dust cloud up under the brushing of his stone and fall like snow, and there'd be banks of it everywhere, along every wall. Real snow had fallen in George County only a few times in his life, but even on those occasions it never completely covered up anything.
What had been salvaged from the fire and not ruined by the smoke and water was being stored in a friend's vacant barn, so the only furniture in the house consisted of what his cousin, the supply sergeant at the national guard armory, had loaned him: a field table and a cot, both set up in the kitchen out of the way of the work. He wasn't ready yet to sleep in the bedroom anyway. He still found himself shaking his head and gazing in dismay at the blackened pine floor where his bed had been. Where he'd flipped back the mattress and box springs and discovered his dogs still trying side by side, it seemed, to hide from the fire. He'd lifted their limp heads, touched their pallid tongues, then with the edge of his boot, had scraped their feces to the wall.
After the divorce, he'd started letting the dogs live inside, and his folks were afraid he was losing his mind. His mama had even sent for the preacher to visit him. But he was merely protecting his remaining assets, Larry had done his best to explain to his family and to the preacher. But to his buddies who feared those prize bird dogs would become spoiled, he told another story: just trying to run the smell of his ex-wife clean from the house.