Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Book No. 9: Brad Vice - The Bear Bryant Funeral Train

I read this a while back, actually. I meant to blog about it, and then I was concerned that I wasn't doing it justice, and then I forgot to finish blogging about it. I have another book that I read around the same time where the same thing happened. Both were written by people I know.

This one is the more notorious of the two. Back in late 2005, a few voices threw accusation of plagiarism at the original edition of this book. I posted about it at the time, first about UGA's decision to pulp the book and then about the absolutely ridiculous NY Press hatchet-job written by the guy who'd elsewhere called for another Sherman to metaphorically burn down the literary South. Shame on him. I hope anyone out there who called for Brad's head on a spike without reading the book in question has come to his or her senses. If not, shame on you, too.

This version of the book is a little different from the UGA publication that was unceremoniously pulped. The stories are in a different order and the epigraphs from his original text have been restored. So, the burning question: is it any good?

That it is. Vice's stories are uniformly smart, well-observed, and deeply touching. In fact, I liked the most controversial story, "Tuscaloosa Knights," least of all, although I can say that I liked it a great deal. Some of the stories in part one ("Stalin" and Other Children's Stories) were working through Vice's relationship with his father, and the protagonists of those stories share a father who is both a farmer and a teacher, somewhere between hard-bitten realist and dreamy intellectual. In "Artifacts," a woman and her increasingly-absent husband quietly grieve over the loss of their young son until things come to a surprising head. I found the culmination of this story very silly on the face of it, but it managed to break my heart completely at the same time. "Chickensnake" is likewise haunted by a lost child - the older brother of the protagonist this time - as it quietly reveals how the violence of farm life is a reflection of life's constant close proximity to pain and death.

Part two of the book (The Bear Bryant Funeral Train) opens with "Tuscaloosa Knights," the story that lead Vice's literary witch-trial. In this one, a neglected young wife in 1920s Tuscaloosa watches a Klan rally with her only friend in town. Some of her observations are verbatim from Carl Carmer's nonfiction account of life in 1920s Tuscaloosa, Stars Fell On Alabama, in the section titled "Tuscaloosa Nights." It's a good story, but I like the others in this section better. "Report From Junction" explores the farm/city dichotomy with the backdrop of Bryant's tenure as head coach of Texas A&M. "Demopolis" yanks happiness out from under the feet of its protagonist suddenly and violently, and its description of Tuscaloosa in the 1990s is perfect. "Mule" is so utterly beautiful that I don't want to spoil a word of it here. The final story, "The Bear Bryant Funeral Train" is a little postmodern exercise in fakery as the protagonist creates a fake document of a real event, heightening it into the realms of myth. It's the perfect explanation for Vice's use of reality and unreality to create greater truth. That's what fiction writers do.


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