Wednesday, August 29, 2007

As Goth as It Gets

The Goth we're referring to here is gothic literature, not those kids in high school that dress in black, pierce things and think they're the first genuises ever to question parental authority and organized religion. Faulkner is considered a master of the Southern gothic; but too often we overlook Ms. Carson McCullers, whose major and minor works are full of freaks that make some of Faulkner's characters look like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The case in point here is "Ballad of the Sad Cafe," a novella included in the must-have volume The Stories of Carson McCullers. It stars Miss Amelia, an abnormally tall woman who lives on her own in the mid-20th century South--and owns her own property and business. Were that not freaky enough, she dwells in sin with a hunchback who may or may not be her cousin and has only been married once, for ten days, to a guy who ended up in the big house for stealing. Her 'sad cafe' comes into being when a bunch of guys from town, with names like Merle and Stumpy, decide to sit around and drink bootlegged liquor Miss Amelia made herself instead of taking it back to their houses and drinking alone. Brilliant, these rural Georgians say--we can drink together and everybody will have such a good time! I'm glad the concept of a good dive bar isn't lost on some citizens of the Bible belt.

The real reason to get this book isn't "Ballad of the Sad Cafe," however. McCullers' little-read short stories, far more down to earth, show the insight into human nature she displayed in her much-lauded The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. There are stories that span years, such as the breathtaking coming-of-age tale "Untitled Piece," one that takes place during a night bus ride from New York City to an unnamed town in the middle of Georgia, and another which captures a moment at a roadside diner in the wee hours of the morning. Lots of drunks, writers, musicians, and lonely souls populate McCullers' short fiction, and she doesn't spare any desolation. But the richness and truth of this fictional arena somehow uplift the reader, as if McCullers' sheer skill were enough to convince us that the world, even in its saddest moments, shimmers with life and possibility.

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