These underrated Southern novels have one thing in common: Place. Be it a small North Carolina tobacco town or Charleston in the 1920s, they each capture a particular, one-of-a-kind spot on the planet. You likely never have heard of these, all of which are at least 12 years old – or read them so long ago you’ve forgotten. I call them “lost-in-the-cosmos” novels. For me, each one earns the title “classic.” Hunt them down. Devour them. You might even discover that one or more should be on your fall book club list.
A SHORT HISTORY OF A SMALL PLACE. By T.R. Pearson. 1985. Paper 1986.
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I suspect one reason this brilliant novel by a Winston-Salem native (who now writes mysteries under the pen name Rick Gavin) is not more acclaimed is because critics often mistake humor for a lower form of art. Despite the high hilarity of many scenes (The Epperson sisters “distinguished themselves in the minds of the Neelyites by going from reasonably normal to unquestionably insane without ever pausing at peculiar.”), this novel, set in the fictional N.C. town of Neely, runs deep with sorrow. My friend Gaye Ingram of Louisiana captures it best: It’s about “community, how a people through their shared sorrows and triumphs – and the telling and retelling of those stories – acquires charity.”
A VISITATION OF SPIRTS, By Randall Kenan. 1989. Paper 2000.
A brave subject from UNC-Chapel Hill writing prof Randall Kenan. His first novel set in Tims Creek, N.C., gives us Horace Cross, a black teenager, descendant of slaves, raised in a tightly knit, conservative family of evangelists. A hungry reader and a good student, Horace is the family’s greatest hope, but in their eyes, his homosexuality dooms him. So tormented is Horace by the idea that he might be gay, he summons a demon to transform him into a bird. In an ironic reversal, Kenan achieves not only a Gothic wonder here but a revisionist Gothic wonder. Horace wants a demon to save him from a church that itself uses exorcism to cast out evil. The novel eerily foreshadows how some factions continue to demonize homosexuality.
B-FOUR, By Sam Hodges. 1992. Paperback 2000.
“If you read B-Four and don’t love it,” wrote Clyde Edgerton in a blurb, “then check your pulse.” You want comic? I give you comic – by a former Charlotte Observer book editor, now living in Dallas. Beauregard Forrest is an affable, self-effacing, charmingly self-chastising cub reporter whose stories – Pet of the Week, Kiwanis Club meetings, obituaries – get buried deep inside the B-section of Birmingham’s Standard-Dispatch. B-Four’s struggles, both journalistically and romantically, are joltingly funny. A Georgia native and a graduate of Furman and Warren Wilson’s MFA program, Hodges has so far given us this one-book classic, complete with sly glimpses into those colorful habits and behaviors that give the Deep South its distinctive flavor.
THE GRAVITY OF SUNLIGHT, by Rosa Shand. Paper 2000.
Set in Uganda in 1962, this is the lush story of a woman’s love affair with a man and with a country. Agnes’s husband believes love can be willed. And Agnes? Well, you’ll see. A love story, yes. But it’s also about the interweaving of destiny and desire and landscape. The prologues to each chapter are gems: “Novels are deceptive. No wonder they were forbidden reading for so long, in so many places. They’re all about attachments. But the attachments … are far more ecstatic, or far more tragic than our own lives could ever be.” Rosa Shand, master of the understatement, lives in Davidson. This is her only novel to date.
A SOUTHERN TRAGEDY IN CRIMSON AND ORANGE, by Lawrence Naumoff. 2005.
In his sixth novel, Charlotte native Naumoff transforms the horror of the 1991 Hamlet chicken plant fire – 26 people died trying to escape the locked doors -- into eerie beauty with passages that are kissing cousins to poetry. Naumoff, who teaches creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, was inspired to write about what it means to be poor when he heard Tom Wolfe talk about yearning for “the old time social realist” novels. Naumoff follows a fictional Hamlet family from its merchant class status in 1918 down through their social and economic decline to 1991 where they are “working chickens.”
THE SECOND COMING, by Walker Percy. 1980. Paper 1999.
Never as touted as his acclaimed “The Moviegoer,” this novel is dear to me, I confess, because when it came out, I interviewed the Louisiana novelist in person. Set in Linwood, N.C., it’s the story of the vague, spaced-out Will Barrett who, by falling in love with an emotionally fragile young woman, is restored to life. A life where even the most mundane acts become new and wondrous. Angst and how to survive it was always Percy’s theme. Will Barrett says: “…there is a difference between feeling dead and not knowing it, and feeling dead and knowing it. Knowing it means there is a possibility of feeling alive though dead.” Much of the landscape here is pure Highlands, N.C., with a few Tennessee caves tossed in for dramatic effect.
THE SWEET EVERLASTING, by Judson Mitcham. 1996. Paper 2000.
Some novels have a rhythm to them, as if written not with paper and pen or computer, but as if they flowed from a vein into a crystal bowl. So it is with the story narrated here by 74-year-old Ellis Burt, mill worker, ex-con, son of a sharecropper, as he looks back over his life in North Georgia. Once he had a wife and son. Then he went to prison. Now, in his work as a janitor, the past curls back around on him like a slow river, not in a way he could have imagined or chosen, but in a good way. For evoking sensory detail, Mitcham, a former poet laureate of Georgia, is a master: “The rain had turned the air sweet, and it smelled like some kind of wild tea, made out of weeds and dirt and cut with the smell of hot asphalt cooled off.”
HERE TO GET MY BABY OUT OF JAIL, By Louise Shivers. 1983. Paper 2004.
Remember how Scarlett O’Hara ultimately looked at Ashley Wilkes, whom she had once wanted to swipe from Melanie? “He never really existed at all, except in my imagination. I loved something I made up… .” A similar light dawns on Roxy Walston in this first novel, about a 1937 love triangle in the tobacco-growing town of Tarborough, N.C. Near the affair’s disastrous end, Roxy looks at red-headed Jack Ruffin and sees that the mouth that had excited her all summer “looked narrow and hard, and all over he was lean and spare, but just a man, just a lean, spare man.” The late Shivers, whose own independence was hard-won, is well-acquainted with the terrain of her native Eastern North Carolina, as well as the terrain of a woman’s heart who’s begun to think for herself.
WHY WE NEVER DANCED THE CHARLESTON, by Harlan Greene. 1984. Paper, 2005.
This slim novel, Greene’s first, explores the hidden/repressed gay culture of 1920s Charleston. In the 2005 edition, there’s an afterword by Greene, a research librarian at the College of Charleston, that loosely traces the story to its factual beginning. Though one critic described the prose as “moist,” it’s a a hop-skip of a read, capturing the old heady danger of forbidden relationships among those “who ruined themselves with love.” As a Charleston native and the son of Holocaust survivors, Greene writes with inside knowledge about the feelings of Charleston’s aristocracy towards its “immigrants” and newcomers. As with many memorable novels, this is the story of “the human heart in conflict with its time.”