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Three young southern writers reviewed: the sinners, whiskey, and witches of Charles Dodd White, Jon Sealy, and Emma Bolden.

Three young southern writers who each recently have produced books worthy of more praise than they have received to date. Thus it falls to a Costa Rican writing for the JDR to, as you southerners to the north sometimes remark, "holler" a little louder about these writers and their noteworthy books.

Charles Dodd White's story collection Sinners of Sanction County (Bottom Dog Press, 2011) delivers on the promise of its title. People doing bad things run up against the more law-biding type in the area of the North Carolina mountains where everyone lives--or tries to. Yet stripped of any moral or ethical considerations, the good, the bad, and the ugly of White's Appalachia are all more or less unhappy and also powerless to strike back against the national and international forces that are altering their region's identity. To his credit, White does not romanticize their inevitable cultural loss. Rather, he often points to their agonizing complicity in bringing it about. Indeed, some of his stories read like a keen observer reconnoitering a war zone and, a former military man myself, I was not surprised to learn that White is an ex-marine. It shows in the things he notices.

The details I have noted so far are key to one's reading experience. If you happen to have strayed into Appalachian literature by way of Cormac McCarthy, these stories will dazzle you. On the other hand, readers who are overwhelmed by content violence may find White too much of a mauler, despite his formal gifts in crafting his narratives. Either way, the many guns, carcasses, and broken bodies and psyches will haunt readers, and afford them a life-like introduction to White's little corner of Appalachia. However grim it may be, one feels it to be true

Readers often will shake their heads at the actions of the sinners in many of these stories and remark perhaps, "That's just not right." But the book is right about its subject matter, though its mode of conveyance will please readers like me while probably alienating others. Living in Costa Rica, I smile a little indulgently at the tales of poverty and ommercialization from contemporary Appalachia, for those things are amplified a hundred-fold here (a matter of context, I suppose). So it is the writing I primarily pay attention to and in that White must be counted among the best prose writers of his Appalachian generation.

Speaking of crops and southern and Appalachian prose, I would be remiss to ignore the arrival of a new, young variety of novelist from South Carolina named Jon Sealy, who in The Whisky Baron (Hub City, 2013) propels himself into the distinguished generational literary company of White and others.

I make this claim in terms of his content and his craft, for his characters consume, as the title implies, massive amounts of whiskey. Indeed, having read the books in close proximity, I wonder at who would win a drinking contest between White's characters and Sealy's. Like White's people Sealy's are mountaineers, only they dwell in northwest South Carolina and the year is 1932. This dynamic makes Sealy's book a historical novel of sorts, even though one gets the impression he knows his characters so intimately that all is not gleaned merely from research. The time differential also makes for a greater savagery of action. The people are more isolated, symbolically and geographically, and rather than psychologically contemplating death (as in White), they go on ahead and kill each other, or try to.

Whiskey and murder are the dominant plot shapers, but as with White's prose, the beauty of Sealy's writing carries the day or, in this case, the book. Yet it also means readers will face the same conundrum of weighing a degree of violence some may find too great versus a written way of telling that is delightful and worth following to its end. The fact that all this occurs in a first novel allows me to prophesize future literary successes for Sealy with sound confidence.

I have just written of prophecy and that shall be my transition, for otherwise it might seem strange to include Emma Bolden's collection of poems Maleficae (Gen Pop, 2013) among the prose books of these two southern male mountaineers. Yet like Sealy's book, Maleficae is dramatically immediate but historical in nature and, like the work of Sealy and White, it brims with inhumanity and violence. Though the book's poems are set in Europe, Bolden is a southern writer (from Alabama) and anyone who has missed out on the witch accounts of early Virginia has abdicated a fascinating window into a lost world of women, sorcery, patriarchy, and violence--all occurring, not in Europe, but the South of old. (As an aside, the issue of the James Dickey Review in which four of Bolden's poems from her collection appeared eventually sold out).

The differences, then, among these three books are not so great as one might imagine, though Bolden's protagonist is of course a witch, or rather a woman accused of being one. So rather than having guns blazing, as in Sealy, there are pyres set aflame with unfortunate women set atop them.

Bolden's major accomplishment, at least to my mind, is not unlike White's. She avoids sentiment in exploring her witches and plays around the edges of their complicity in crossing the boundaries of their society. They are persecuted, yet powerful. Indeed, their dying words--their screams and curses--possess the ability to psychologically torture people for the remainder of their lives.

The poems are also timely: as American pop culture seems to celebrate teen TV witches in lipstick and heels, Bolden's book hits the reader hard at its conclusion with nonfictional notes and resources for further reading about these abused, mysterious women. Their agonies, misunderstandings, and beauty were quite real--as are Bolden's gorgeous poems.

"Verisimilitude" is the word that comes to mind in conclusion. Anyone who thinks American southern literature may veer away from what made it great in the hands of your Generation-Xers, will be, as you sometimes say, "slapped upside the head" by the vivacity, power, and grace of writers such as these three. James Dickey, I think, would be proud--or jealous.
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Title Annotation:Sinners of Sanction County, The Whisky Baron, Maleficae
Author:Rodriquez, Ricky
Publication:James Dickey Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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