Once, at a punk rock show in Kentucky, the lead singer of a Nashville band lamented the small turnout of the crowd. “I think Kentucky is more Southern than Tennessee,” he said.
He meant it as an insult. “Southern” meant lame, redneck, and backward, but it was an incomplete definition, one riddled with the easy stereotypes and contempt some Southerners find only in themselves.
You’ll find a few of those characters in Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, but this anthology is filled with writers whose work is anything but easy. Coeditor Brian Carpenter’s introduction defines 'grit lit' and 'rough south' fiction as, “typically blue collar or working class, mostly small towns, sometimes rural, occasionally but not always violent, usually but not necessarily Southern.” There’s drinking and cheating and all the other ingredients of a great country song, without the benefit of a catchy chorus.
Fine examples of this are Larry Brown’s “Samaritans”, a darkly funny twist on the idea of Southern hospitality, and an excerpt from Tim McLaurin’s The Acorn Plan, in which a man decides to “drink all the wine in the world” to teach his violent nephew a lesson.
The violence in many of these stories might be explained away by the poverty the characters endure or the cynical notion that there’s nothing much to do in the sticks. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s as Chris Offutt says in the introduction to “Melungeons”, that there is a “frontier mentality” in the South, but “tribulation under fire no longer exists. We’ve had to create our own.” His story “Melungeons” centers on two characters caught in a generations-old feud between two clans of hill people in eastern Kentucky, one just returned from a self-imposed exile and the other a permanent fixture of the landscape. There’s violence in the story, but there isn’t hate or desperation in it. It’s carried out as a duty, a chore like running to the post office or stopping to pick up a loaf of bread. It’s chilling.
These voices, the writers and their characters, are loud and rowdy, echoing on every page the joy and sweat and hate of a people torn up between their lot in life and their pride, a tension they can’t hope to reconcile, only tamp down deep with all the other emotions too ugly or sinful to reveal. There’s a chance you know someone from this world, or maybe you yourself are someone whose people identify where they’re from by naming a hill or hollow or, if specificity is required, a county. No matter where you’re from, violence, misery, and even hope run through all our lives, but the work in this anthology shows how, in the South, they run a little deeper.