With its legacy of slavery and states' rights, the South has long occupied a uniquely troubled place at the American table, but its peculiar history and culture have served its writers well, birthing an unsurpassed literary canon. Faulkner, O'Connor, Gaines, Welty — these are world-class heavyweights. So what's a young Southern writer to do, struggling against the burden of that tradition?
Thomas Pierce's debut collection, "Hall of Small Mammals," taps the aquifer of Southern literature but blends in supernatural elements with a light, deft touch, echoes of García Márquez among the biscuits and magnolias. A praline sweetness glazes the surface of these stories, offset by the occasional bitter aftertaste. Pierce knows his people well, connecting their conflicts to a deeper narrative about the human condition.
"Shirley Temple Three" tells the poignant tale of Mawmaw, an elderly woman whose careless middle-aged son upends her world by dumping a pygmy mammoth on her doorstep in the middle of the night. Named after the famous child actor of the Depression, Shirley has been cloned from an ancient mammoth's DNA. She bangs about Mawmaw's house, moaning as her health fails, forming a psychic bond with her caretaker: "Some nights, half asleep, Mawmaw worries that the noise is emanating from the catacombs of her own body. Opening her mouth she half expects the cries to amplify. She is able to sleep only in spurts. She dreams that Shirley is a guide through a world of snow and ice and unidentifiable landscapes."
Although these stories are suffused in whimsy, Pierce plumbs the darkness that laps at his characters' lives. He's particularly astute in his grasp of the ways men oppress each other, the joys and limitations of the father-son relationship, as in "Grasshopper Kings." His inventiveness is on full display in "Videos of People Falling Down," a jigsaw puzzle with scattered points of view that eventually snap into place. And in the title story, the narrator takes his girlfriend's son to the zoo for a Pippin monkey exhibit and brushes against a more sinister kind of nature: "Overhead, along cables that connected the Ape Hall to what looked like a cellphone tower, an orangutan bounced up and down on the lines. … He wasn't staring right at me. It was more unsettling than that. He was more like someone you see out at dinner one night whom you almost recognize, the person who keeps sneaking glances at you over the wine menu. … One solitary creature regarding another."
Pierce wisely steers clear of regional clichés: there's nary a Winn-Dixie or a sleepy courthouse square here. With its elegant prose and revelatory insights, "Hall of Small Mammals" announces a vivid and engaging new voice.
Hamilton Cain is the author of "This Boy's Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing." He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.