Stories to Ease the Tension: Clyde Edgerton's Fiction

Article excerpt

"They keep saying the language is dying--which I don't understand. How could language be dying when all these people I know are talking the same way they always did."

--Raney

Flannery O'Connor once said, "Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it's a good thing to be stuck with." O'Connor intended a double meaning, I'm sure, describing both her love for the region and her sense that the virtues and vices of Southern culture provide an ironic source for a creative writer. Clyde Edgerton, too, is stuck with the South, and although his satire is generally gentler than O'Connor's, his fiction also seems to thrive on ambivalence, fondness and aversion for Southern mores often mixing together in his work. Edgerton's story is the South.

Things Southern abound in Edgerton's novels. Race and religion are always close to the surface in his books. Family and community play a significant role in his characters' lives. The sense of history and shared beliefs that set the South apart from much of the rest of America is prominent in his work. Violence and poverty appear as well, and although they have never been exclusively Southern problems, they have been a particular part of Southern life. Even the storytelling tradition, though not only Southern, seems especially a part of the South. Storytelling is at the center of Clyde Edgerton's fictive world, intricately connected to a sense of history, the importance of family, the debate over race, and the idioms of tradition. Like most contemporary Southern writers, Edgerton is uncomfortable with a regional label. In an interview in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1987, Edgerton made this point:

   "The fact that readers in Canada and California and New York have
   written to me in favorable terms gives me hope that my stories are
   reaching them with some depth. I think it would be real easy to take
   idiosyncratic aspects of Southern life and beat it to death ..."

Later in the interview Edgerton makes it clear that he is aware of Flannery O'Connor's warning about overusing "this business with the old well buckets" and that he is familiar with Walker Percy's argument that people don't sit on the front porch anymore telling stories. Nevertheless, that world of accents and storytelling is the South he knows:

   But I did [tell stories] and my parents did. I guess it's kind of a
   time warp; some of us grew up in a South in the 1950s that most
   people think disappeared after the 1930s. I still have to write
   about that.

But Edgerton's three novels, Raney (1985), Walking Across Egypt (1987), and The Floatplane Notebooks (1988) are not historical romances. Rather, they are social satires, not nostalgic but comic structures braced with an often poignant and graphic realism. Edgerton's South is in the midst of change. It's the country turning into the suburbs. He captures the chameleon as it's changing colors, the old South becoming the Sunbelt.

Set in Listre, North Carolina, in the mid-1970s, Edgerton's first novel, Raney, is a reflection of the times it portrays. The book opens with an engagement announcement from The Hansen County Pilot, dated April 18, 1975. Although by this time the stormy waters of the Sixties were starting to recede for much of America, in the South things were at high tide--attitudes toward race, religion, and sex were changing faster perhaps than they ever had before below the Mason-Dixon line. During these years Atlanta was becoming the new heart of Dixie, megalopolis replacing cotton fields, concrete covering kudzu.

Raney is about such change, the new South meeting the old. It is literally and figuratively about a marriage of cultures, beginning with the wedding of Charles Shepherd of Atlanta and Raney Bell of Bethel, North Carolina. The opening page announces the conflict between the two sensibilities:

   We get married in two days: Charles and me. …