Overlooked Appalachian Lit: Six Contemporary Southern Books Everyone Should Read
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by Glenn Taylor
Here are six books by contemporary writers with roots in Kentucky, east Tennessee, West Virginia, and upstate South Carolina. Note that in the very act of reading the names of those places, as you have just done, you may inadvertently conjure in your mind a multitude of negative or simplified depictions. You may hear full-gallop banjo picking. You may visualize some skewed humanoid picture of “inbreeding,” whatever that term has come to mean. Note that the mainstream national media might be to blame for this conjuring, as it tends to function in a sensational and visually-jarring manner that homogenizes a people and misrepresents a region, thus perpetuating a cycle of wholesale cultural dismissal. The truth about the Appalachian South and its people, of course, is more complex, and it involves all that the rivers and roads and rails brought to us, and all that they took away. The truth is found here in fiction and in poetry, in the wise and funny and heart-breaking voices of those who have listened, of those who know not only their collective past, but also how to best sit you down and tell it to you, if only you will listen. These are six books you won’t soon forget.
Trampoline by Robert Gipe
Ohio University Press, 2015
Originally from Kingsport, Tennessee, Gipe has long lived in eastern Kentucky.
Trampoline is that rare kind of book, a first novel that feels like a fourth or fifth. It is about much more than the fight against strip mining and mountaintop removal. It is a classic yet utterly original coming-of-age story about love and family and violence and hills and hollows, told retrospectively and in five acts, each one bold and vivid, each one teeming with Gipe’s unique drawings. It is a roaring tale that knows when to tamp its own fire–which is another way of saying that it is funny as hell but will hurt you too. Certainly, you’ll never forget its illustrations or its narrator, Dawn Jewell.
Sample sentence: The skinned trees stood gray and clear like old people talking, no word wasted.
Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley: Novellas & Stories by Ann Pancake
Originally from Romney, West Virginia.
There is a rhythm that courses through the lines of these stories. I find myself regarding Pancake’s sentences with awe. In them you’ll find the remnants of real lives lived, the particular pain and beauty of working people, and the complexities they navigate with a dangerous ingenuity that matches Pancake’s own style. She makes a world that only she can name, and it is a world of mud and bone and blood and rust. It is somehow both beautiful and alarming, a rare a combination.
Sample sentence: Fangs are something everybody has four of, but Robbie Phillips’s fangs are the longest I’ve ever seen on a human, and then he has more than that.
Between Wrecks by George Singleton
Dzanc Books, 2014
Originally from Anaheim, California, he grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina.
Singleton is undoubtedly one of the funniest contemporary writers anywhere. His ability to capture the absurd ways in which we conduct our days is remarkable, for it exposes us as altogether futile and honorable and pitiful and lovable creatures. Singleton’s characters reveal the modern South for what it is: new, old, stuck, and moving, all at once. River rocks and fake arrowheads and ancient car cigarette lighters and bourbon mark the path onward. Listen to the way people speak in these stories. There is truth in what they say, and there is life in how they wreck themselves.
Sample sentence: How many philosophers found themselves stuck at the back corner of a junkyard, drinking blind-worthy white lightning with a man destined to kill a tree farmer and a man without a kickstand?
Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers by Frank X Walker
University of Georgia Press, 2013
Originally from Danville, Kentucky.
Walker’s Affrilachia is a book of poems I always find myself returning to, and with his latest, I was reminded why. He has once again put forth a collection of precise and bold verse to shake up the world of contemporary poetry, and he has also reanimated our shared and horrifying past. This is a brave and immeasurably important book told in the voices of Evers’s widow Myrlie, Evers’s brother, as well as in the voices of Evers’s murderer Byron De La Beckwith and his wives. Find out the meaning of the title, read the book, and never let any generation forget Medgar Evers.
Wove my spine to his so he could stand
magnolia tall and blossom for all to see.
Refuge by Dot Jackson
Novello Festival Press, 2006
Born in Miami, Florida, she has long lived in her ancestral upstate South Carolina.
Dot Jackson possesses a writing style that is pure and incantatory, as if spoken to the reader. It is as if the author has channeled this Mary Seneca Steele and we are lucky enough to listen. This is the best kind of journey tale, the kind that leaves behind “proper” coastal environs and heads for the hills, where life is elemental and violent yet full of loyalty and grace, where a woman such as Mary Seneca might finally be free.
Sample sentence: And songs the bees sang to me, in my sleep, and songs the wind would sing on the stove pipe, when I would doze off, in the rocking chair, sometimes.
Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson
Toby Press, 2002
Born in Hamilton, Ohio, she grew up in Indian Creek, Kentucky.
In fiction writing workshops, I often use the opening chapter as a lesson in point of view. Wilkinson uses “we” in a manner that is so inviting and comfortable as to cast a spell upon the reader that lasts until the very last page. This is a communal book, and by that I mean that the we of the book’s people is ever-present, whether it is literally used as the voice of the teller or not. Water Street is memory, preserved and intact.
Sample sentence: There you can buy a hogshead cheese sandwich for a dollar and get chopped steak and pork chops on credit.