I began skimming Southern Sin with the suspicion that I wouldn’t enjoy it. The subtitle, “True Stories of the Sultry South & Women Behaving Badly,” suggested a compendium of wanna-be-naughty memoirs of the predictable and superficial sort. After all, “south” and “sultry” and “sin” – the buzz words of titillation, unreal “real housewives,” various shades of Confederate gray.
I can’t say that every essay in the book rises above formula and selfie impishness, but a number of the pieces turn out to be surprising in detail, stylish, self-interrogating, memorable. Some rise above the protocols of confession to become examples of witness. More useful than the subtitle in forecasting the volume’s tone and urgency is Dorothy Allison’s zesty introduction with its recommendation that we consider the famous seven deadlies as we engage with the collection, though lust dominates.
I always enjoy stories with a discernible “local habitation and a name,” but I’ll admit that my attention sharpened when I began to recognize in Sarah Gilbert’s “No Other Gods” the landmarks of my own community. What really kept me going, however, was her revelation (maybe autopsy) of a certain recognizable class, a certain lifestyle, exposure without malice. The writing is irreverent without predictable attitude, self-empowering without exaggerating the foibles of those around her, and Gilbert’s rhetorical strategies render her testimony almost incantatory.
One thing absent from the book but which I didn’t miss is the list of usual suspects – Rosemary Daniell, Ellen Gilchrist – the celebrity transgressor-belles whose tales have become a little too familiar. And here I should confess that one of the new voices I really enjoyed was not new to me. Full disclosure – Elyse Moody was one of my Shenandoah interns a few years ago, but her writing has deepened and sharpened in the intervening time. I suspect her contribution “Trouble” is part of a larger work, an investigation into the foggy territory of family rumor and loose ends, and she succeeds, without resorting to spectacle, in making me want to know what makes this clan work; the case of self-defense under examination allows the author to explore place and custom and the process of her own practical education. And where else were you going to find out that Rome, Georgia owns a bronze replica of the Capitoline Wolf, given to the Georgia town by Mussolini himself? Nor will those hoping for a gothic detail or two be disappointed. If it looks like I’m playing favorites, at least I’m not sneaking.
Elane Johnson’s “Porn Star” is amusing and surprising, not nearly so salty as the title suggests. In fact, these “souvenirs” in language tend to be direct without being graphic, tasteful without being prissy. The most off-key selection, to my ear, was the one piece by a male, Aaron Gwyn’s “Love in the Worst Way.” Gwyn is a skillful writer who often writes sex with a directness that suits some but not all contexts. His story felt like a misfit in this gathering, given its general weather. But I have to say that a woman does behave badly in his essay, or perhaps like Jessica Rabbitt she’s just drawn bad. Suzanne Roberts’s essay, also nervy, rang a little tinny, carried some of that expected exhibitionistic TMI, but now I begin to feel a little prudish myself.
Two additional features of note are journalistic in tenor and immediately arresting. “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie” by Sonja Livingston tells of “illicit” love, attempted elopement, disappointment, despair, crime and punishment in Memphis before Handy had set the blues to music. The abbreviated nature of the piece contributes to its lyrical pitch and pathos. Louella Bryant’s “Rum-Running Queen” whetted my appetite and left me wanting more about moonshining, hoodwinking, supercharging and “a white tailored dress with brown ruffled sleeves,” all relevant to notorious Willie Carter Sharpe of Franklin County and her daredevil, profitable avocation. For those who want a familiar touchstone, think of the recent film “Lawless.”
Intensity and surprise twists, confession, regret, relief and triumph. After all, it’s all about the garter belt and the Bible belt, holding out and giving in and all the attendant joys, confusion and anguish. I don’t know how gendered my reading is, but Gutkind and Fennelly offer up a couple of dozen stories, few clumsy, not many irritating, a full dozen of them re-readable. Text on the back of the book claims these are “stories of women flirting with perdition,” which is no small matter for either gender, but flirtation is the minor chord in this anthology. It’s worth reading for the major ones, the pain and the heaving laughter, that whole famous Faulkner list involving the human heart.