In his short story collection “The Name of the Nearest River,” Alex Taylor gives us a set of characters heartbreakingly familiar to any Southerner; sad, despondent people working dead end jobs and living in hopeless circumstances, the next six pack of beer their only refuge. There is a deep loneliness about these characters and a sense of doom bearing down on each of them. Taylor offers no false hope, simply sympathy for their plight; he knows his characters intimately, and paints them with precise details.
Taylor comes from the same rural world as his characters — a Kentucky native who lives in Rosine, he has worked on tobacco farms, as a sorghum peddler, an auto mechanic and a factory worker. Reading the text, there is an obvious sense of shared experience between the author and his characters; Taylor understands the pains of day-to-day life for rural people, and imbues his stories with brutal authenticity.
While his skill at crafting characters is remarkable, Taylor’s real gift is in his prose. Like a great pop songwriter who collects jokes and one-liners he hears in life, Taylor packs his stories with unforgettable turns of phrase. When the narrator of “The Device Must Start at Zero” describes his heart as “staggering around in my chest like a lost drunk looking for a place to lay down,” you can’t help but smile.
The collection, published by Sarabande Books in 2009, is filled with long, heavy-handed titles: “Things Both Right and Needed,” “We Were Men and the Fire Made Us,” “At a Late or Early Hour.” With the clunky titles, Taylor reveals one of his few shortcomings — it’s as if he’s trying to convince us of his work’s significance. While his intentions may be grandiose, the stories themselves are refreshingly simple and pure.
These aren’t stories about plot, but about detail. Taylor’s characters don’t really have goals or aims beyond boozing or taking out aggression. In “The Device Must Start at Zero,” a group of friends obsess over the joys of demolition derbies. In “The Evening Part of Daylight,” a would-be groom punches his bride in the face and then goes fishing to calm himself.
There is a fair amount of oblique humor in the text; in “Equator Joe’s Famous Nuclear Meltdown Chili,” a drive-in owner hires a local thug to break up a concession stand across the street from his business, only to see him vanquished when the vendor gives him a bowl of the titular chili. With this story, Taylor channels the bawdy eccentricity of Mark Twain, creating his own brand of chaotic Southern comedy.
Most of Taylor stories are quiet and reflective, and the author shows touching sympathy for his characters. In “Things Both Right and Needed,” we see three friends spend a casual day along a river, quietly lamenting the recent loss of another friend. In “A Late or Early Hour,” a woman reflects on her life while her husband lays on his deathbed, pondering her identity as he slowly slips away.
Like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, his most obvious antecedents, Taylor has the ability to portray brutal hardship without condescending to it. He clearly empathizes completely with his characters and sees their troubles as the tragic results of human frailty. He understands their plight, and is compassionate enough not to judge them.
This is a superb collection, filled with the tiny sensory details that make all great stories live and breathe; the way a field looks through a foggy window in winter, the way rain sounds as it falls into a half-filled beer can, the calming power of liquor tunneling through the body. Taylor is expert at creating a sense of time and place through careful observation and description. While I’m interested to read his next book, he clearly already has the stuff of a great writer.
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