Jennifer S. Davis Embraces Her Southern Literary Roots

This week’s edition of FiveChapters.com features “Witnessing,” one of my favorite stories from the Jennifer S. Davis collection Our Former Lives in Art. It’s an excellent introduction to her work which I encourage you to read—but, really, every story of hers I’ve experienced has been fantastic, so once you’ve read this one online, I hope you’ll consider buying them all. In this essay, the Alabama native fondly recalls one of her favorite stories, set in an equally compelling South of the imagination.

jennifer-s-davis.jpgI always panic when asked to state my favorite anything. First of all, I’m fickle. No matter what the subject—favorite ice cream flavor, favorite city, favorite color—I will take far too long to decide on a winner, and then change my mind repeatedly within minutes. I can never choose an entrĂ©e off a menu in a timely manner, either. Seriously: Eating out gives me severe anxiety, especially if people are watching me order. Inevitably, I suffer food envy. That is the bad thing about choice. I’m almost always sure to make the wrong one.

Picking a favorite writer or novel or story is even more dangerous. It seems that people use such information to make sweeping judgments about who you are, a tidy way to safely categorize or dismiss you. Why else would we scour potential lovers’ and friends’ bookshelves and CD racks if we didn’t want information pertinent to making our decision about the quality of the person in question? I still remember my great heartbreak in college when, desperate to make friends 2000 miles from home, I hit it off with my blonde, bubbly neighbor. Then the Debbie Gibson CD fell out of her car as she unloaded her things. And that was that.

So it is a great testament to Rick Bass’ awesome talent that when asked to choose and discuss my favorite story, I thought of “The History of Rodney” in seconds and had no qualms swearing allegiance to my choice. First of all, it walks the margins of reality but still manages to hit harder and with less guile than most in-your-face realistic stories, and that accomplishment thrills me as a reader. Secondly, it takes place in Mississippi, and I’ve quit pretending that I don’t prefer Southern fiction, more often than not, to all other fiction. And this isn’t your ordinary Mississippi (not that, from my experience, there is anything ordinary about Mississippi), but rather a place almost excused from time, where threatening swine rumored to be descendants of Union soldiers rule a tiny enclave of twelve. A place where indistinguishable days are spent sweating on sun porches while fantasizing about the beauty of the Mississippi River, which up and changed course years before, abandoning the town of Rodney and moving seven miles over. These seven miles might as well be a continent, and the narrator and his wife speak of the river as a mythical thing.

If asked what this story is about, I really couldn’t tell you. We do get the history of Rodney, but it emerges in such a lazy, tensionless way that you really couldn’t claim that history as story. There are soldiers turned to pigs and a stranded Confederate gunboat filled with the detritus of death and an old woman waiting for the return of her lover, who was condemned to the mental hospital forty years ago for chasing chickens in the street. There is also new love—the young narrator and his wife—who have come to this abandoned town because they want to feel their lives happen. These characters aren’t waiting to die or waiting for their lives to begin. They just revel in existing. Bass beautifully captures this joy, and I feel it ever time I read the story.

But the main reason I love this story is for its unapologetic appreciation of decay. I’m not talking about a desire to resurrect the past. This story is not without awareness; it does not skirt the issues of race and class. I’m talking about an understanding of the beauty of watching a living and dying landscape transform itself around you, which is what the characters who populate “The History of Rodney” do with such abandon, and in doing so, they become essential to that landscape, part of its history. Maybe I’m just a maudlin Southerner, but what more can one ask for out of life, or a short story?

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30 July 2007 | selling shorts |