Jacob White said in an interview that, channeling Philip Roth, he likes to begin a story in the moments following futility. The tragedy of human existence, says Roth, is that we don’t realize it’s tragic until it’s too late. White’s book of short stories, Being Dead in South Carolina, shows just that: his characters don’t die, they are in many ways already dead.
Which isn’t to say his is a collection of Proustian cookie-eating and remote musing on the past, all in riskless pluperfect. Nor is his tone all frowns and moribund. There are high-speed boat races, sons punching fathers, pseudo-sumo wrestling, and impossible lines that would green Barry Hannah with envy, like, “‘Paper or plastic, dribble-dick,’ he says, then shoots me in the head to let me know he’s being rhetorical.” Which sounds moribund, but the only death in South Carolina is by acoustic guitar.
In “The Days Down Here” (which if you don’t cry reading, you haven’t read every word), a wife, husband, and their son move south to a lakefront house and what follows is reminiscent of “Gift of the Magi.” She is terminally ill and he sells everything to move the family where she vacationed as a child. And, in true Southern Gothic, little remains. He worries that this off-grid atmosphere will toll their young adult son. But the world turns without his spinning it: the son has been learning to wakeboard and can fly higher than his father’s physics allow and the man’s wife has intended all along to make the move a gift to him, a founding ground in a burial site’s disguise.
The titular piece begins with distant relatives trying to tip a car rightside up. After being shot in the head, Dayton loses much of his memory. His mother thinks he should “reassociate,” so she sends him to visit a cousin he spent time with as a boy. The story, I think, is a microcosm of the book: “Being Dead” is meant to be read as an introductory participial phrase, i.e. “Given that you’re dead,” and then the story follows. Action proceeds in real time, but what is really happening is a totaling of his life, a backward cast. We learn that as a boy, Dayton accidentally sprayed his cousin, Jackie, with a .22 shotgun. Jackie tells him the bullet that went through his head was the same discharge his own gun sent through Jackie years ago. It is he who wrecks the car and it’s his history—that internal confrontation—that allows him to tip its wheels to the ground and move on to whatever meaning might accompany death. Which, of course, isn’t roses and halations of the inspired. À la Flannery O’Connor, he is punched in the face.
Other pieces plumb philosophically down without the fireworks of action. In “The Hour of Revision,” a young father scratches his neurotic head at the mossy precipice of Fatherhood from his domain, a dad’s. He recalls his father handing over car keys, telling him with the authority of a country judge to “[t]ake it easy on Franklin, because on Franklin they will nail yo ass.” He contrasts his father, regaled in full suit, folding a newspaper regaled in serious news, with his modern self and the paltry props of today: seated at his breakfast bar, “face palely aglow with a screen of Yahoo spam.”
The backdrop is almost always the American South. And the South, at least as it has been known, is dying too. In nearly every story are gated communities, cul-de-sacs and fairways, but rather than showing the reader a sadness cruelly hanging over their unknowing heads, his characters are aware and move forward with a human valor that’s as out of place as a corn stalk in River Heights “Plantation,” known less for its crops than condominiums.
Where White leaves his influences (viz. O’Connor, Welty, Hannah) and takes on a trademark of his own design is near the end of the longer pieces. There is this Scrubs-like reflection, looking openly for meaning in the story. As I notice the pattern and find signs of its unfurling, I cringe, only to read on genuinely moved. There is no orchestral background or head-tilting smile, no general warm fuzziness, but a sincere confrontration between an event of real-life importance and a character made whole. Although this may break that flimsy classroom mantra, Show and don’t tell—readers don’t like being read to—White pulls it off and it’s often as admirable as Proust, who wins us over because he can out-read us. In an era of literature, particularly in short fiction, when everything is evasive, ironized, and cynical—what can irony give us besides a lacking?—it is refreshing to read what is so much more substantial than Southern comfort in Jacob White.
About the author:
Ryan Chamberlain has worked as a farmhand, teacher, roustabout, freelance writer, and busboy. He is currently a bookseller in upstate New York.